Behind the Scenes with James Reel
James Reel is AFCM’s President. As well, he is the Executive Director of the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, serves on the board of the Tucson Desert Song Festival, and is Arizona Public Media’s Classical Music Director and the weekday morning announcer for KUAT-FM. In this program, he discusses the chamber music genre.
Q: How is a chamber music concert distinctive as compared to a symphony or an orchestra?
James Reel: Chamber music is one genre within the larger category of classical music, or art music – something distinct from popular song or dance music, which has always served its own important purpose, and has influenced classical music from the very beginning. Art music also includes works for orchestra, solo piano, grand opera, ballet scores, electronic pieces, all manner of things. What helps set chamber music apart from the rest is that it is a far more intimate experience, for the players and the audience. It’s a small group of musicians engaging in a complex musical conversation in the presence of an audience that’s physically much closer to the performers than they can be in an opera house. The bigger the forces get, the more the audience can be overwhelmed by the spectacle, which is certainly not a bad thing, but chamber music tends to draw you in rather than wash over you.
Q: Why does chamber music remain relevant?
JR: Something becomes classic because it not only represents something important in its own time but also somehow speaks to us today. Just because an artistic creation is old doesn’t mean it has become irrelevant. But it’s also dangerous to worship at the altar of antiquity. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s merely trendy and ephemeral. Who knows if the music we commission will have the staying power of Beethoven? We have a responsibility to nurture the creation of music that communicates directly to us today, and then wait and see how it holds up.
Q: Are there some composers across time who have dedicated their skill solely to the chamber music form in the same way, for example, Stephen Sondheim sticks to musical theater?
JR: The composers who stuck almost exclusively to chamber music, like Ludwig Thuille, are now mostly forgotten, partly because of a former prejudice against chamber music as something dull or interesting only to specialists. But there are composers who wrote an incredible amount of chamber music at a reliably high level. Haydn, for example, wrote nearly 80 string quartets. Brahms wrote far more chamber music than orchestral music, and he never wrote an opera. Because everything in chamber music is so exposed, and every strand and every note has to count, it’s not really something composers can dabble in with much success.
Q: Novelist E.M. Forster said, “In music, fiction is likely to find its nearest parallel.”
A: Every piece of music tells some sort of story, even if it’s not a traditional narrative but a sequence of technical events. Even an abstract sonata-form movement by Haydn is a potentially gripping tale, with each theme having its own distinct character, interweaving with other themes or remaining stubbornly apart, going through a sequence of key changes that can have quite a dramatic effect, and coming out in the end essentially the same but usually altered in some subtle way.