Chamber music and the art of the rehearsal

by Artist Development Fellow

Lucy Caplan’12, a History and Literature concentrator in Dunster House, was awarded an OFA Artist Development Fellowship to attend the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music School and Festival. A violist pursuing a secondary field in Music, Caplan is the Co-Principal Viola of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and Principal Viola of the Dunster House Opera, and was the Principal Viola in the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras for nine years. She has participated in numerous chamber music collaborations, including one with Yo-Yo Ma ‘76 at the 2010 Silk Road Project opening event at Harvard. She plans to pursue a career in viola performance, focusing on chamber music, teaching, and outreach.

Greetings from Blue Hill, Maine! I've spent the past seven weeks here at Kneisel Hall, a summer festival dedicated entirely to the study of chamber music. It's an incredible opportunity to delve into some of the most beautiful music ever written. Over the course of the summer, each of us learns and performs several works from the strings and piano chamber music repertory. This summer, I was lucky to study four complete works: Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493 and Viola Quintet in C Major, K. 515; Brahms's Sextet in B-flat Major, Op. 18; and Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet in E-flat minor, Op. 26.

In a way, chamber music is really the art of rehearsing well. There’s nowhere to hide in a Mozart quintet. If the two violinists don’t adjust their intonation to each other on a certain tricky chord, it doesn’t ring and the effect of the harmonic change doesn’t come across. If I rush through an accompanimental eighth-note figure, it throws the whole group off. Luckily, when you are able to work with really great players, as I was this summer, these sorts of technical issues can be resolved with relative ease.

The tricky part comes at the level of interpretation. If the first violist and the cellist have different ideas about where the high point of a phrase is, it’s just as obvious and just as disconcerting as mismatched intonation or rhythmic shakiness. This is where the importance of good rehearsal comes in: Each person needs to be able to articulate her ideas both verbally and musically. If I think the second theme in the first movement needs a different tone color, I can say that to the rest of my group—or, better yet, I can show it through my playing. As I learned this summer, the ability to show your musical intentions and, even more importantly, to respond well to others’, is what can make or break a chamber group. When it works, it’s amazing. Each moment becomes flexible, open to last-minute change, so it feels like you’re making up the piece as you go along—at exactly the same time as several other people.

I will never forget the performance my Brahms sextet group gave in July. By the time we began to play, at the end of a marathon six-piece program, it was past 11 p.m. As soon as we began to play, the late hour didn’t matter. I could feel an incredible sense of energy throughout the group that gave us all the freedom to take any risks we wanted. If our first cellist wanted to take a little time at the point of his melody, he could—and we would all know to wait. If our second violinist wanted to emphasize a countermelody that she had never really brought out in rehearsal, we would all listen to her. The sense of trust and confidence in one another is like nothing else I’ve experienced. Music subsumes everything else and all that matters is giving as much as you can to the group around you.

It’s exhausting and a little bit terrifying, but ultimately, these moments are what make music worth playing.

[Caption: Violist Lucy Caplan '12]