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Advanced Chamber Music: Beyond Playing Together

VCU’s Department of Music aims to engage students in activities that promote high-level musicianship and collaboration.This most often means exposing young musicians to playing in ensembles such as our Symphonic Wind Ensemble, VCU Symphony and VCU String Orchestra, to name a few. But what if students could go beyond the concept of simply “playing together?” Dr. Magdalena Adamek’s new class, MHIS 491: Advanced Chamber Music, seeks to push the boundaries of what it means to play in an ensemble.

Adamek, Assistant Professor in Collaborative Piano, believes that performing in an ensemble setting brings enormous benefits for students, especially for those at the beginning of their musical journey. She created the Advanced Chamber Music class for students who demonstrate a high level of proficiency with their instruments and who desire an in-depth approach to studying chamber music.

As an advocate for the development of a successful chamber music program at VCU, she believes chamber music plays a significant role in every music student’s life. Aside from developing a sense of pitch, rhythm, and gaining detailed insights into the genre and style of a particular piece, Adamek has observed that students learn how to communicate without words and how to sacrifice oneself for the benefit and overall excellence of the whole group. She has seen first-hand how they share their passion for music and learn about solving various problems while maintaining their own integrity.

With these learning outcomes in mind, Adamek designed the course to incorporate a performance element into a broader context of collaboration. First, the participants develop their playing skills under the professional guidance of skilled faculty members: Dr. Tiffany Valvo, clarinet; Dr. Tabatha Easley, flute; Susanna Klein, violin; or Adamek herself. Second, Adamek further guides the students to work together on their semester-long projects. This year’s projects involve a performance combined with a mini-lecture/multimedia presentation or program notes.

For the students involved in the course, working collectively towards the final project has allowed them to “think outside the box,” to conduct their own research, and to find their identity as musicians and individuals. These talented and eager young musicians have been learning a lot about teamwork and finding that “happy medium” when the flow of creativity becomes overwhelming. Some of them have pointed out to Adamek that being a part of the Advanced Chamber Music class has helped them on a personal level.

Student cellist, Claire Coblentz, has made great improvements while learning Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op. 70 No. 1 “Ghost,” with her partners, pianist Hiko Xu and violinist Stacey Sharpe.

“I feel like I finally know how to use my bow and actually play my instrument well,” said Coblentz. “I think a deep, raw emotion guided Beethoven in this movement. It is overwhelming, but it also teaches me that sometimes in life sad and bad things happen, and we have to accept them as they are, without asking why.”

Another ensemble comprised of pianist Megan Slay, violinist Terralynn Mikell, and cellist Amora Mikell has become completely engrossed in the world of Schumann’s Piano Trio in D Minor. Their final presentation will combine performance, photography and videography, and will focus on portraying Schumann’s different states of mind and emotions.

“This semester marks my third semester in collaborative music. Returning to Schumann has been a thrill as I work with our trio to understand and convey the beauty of his Trio in D Minor,” said pianist Megan Slay. “Being in a collaborative music environment is very exciting, mentally engrossing and stimulating – I am always so pleased and excited to see that when our trio comes together, the music actually comes together! We know this is because we have worked hard on our own individually.”

Slay feels that the experience has been a valuable way to enhance her skills as a collaborative performer. “A challenge for me is to really hear the other parts because there are at some times as many as three counter melodies occurring at the same time,” Slay said. “I am learning how to balance the sound, not playing too quietly or loudly but realizing when I have the melody. I am also realizing how to handle the rubatos and the return back to tempo.”

In addition to her own growth, Slay has been impressed with the collective growth of the ensemble. “We are in the process of really learning how not to overshadow another performer and how each instrument is different and has different strengths. We are learning to appreciate the difference in our different instruments’ registers and dynamic range and our different personalities,” Slay said. “I am amazed to see how these individual and unique contributions come together for this amazing composition. The best part of this collaborative experience is experiencing the process and seeing the changes week to week.”

Jasmine Harris and Iman Williams are exploring the music of Malcolm Arnold and Franz Anton Hoffmeister; two composers who represented completely different musical styles. They are gaining knowledge from Dr. Easley about combining string and woodwind playing techniques effectively and creating a sense of unity between viola and flute.

Trio Tutti (clarinetist Emory Freeman, flutist Isaiah Shaw, and pianist Mona Wu) are delving into a fascinating world of the African-American composer Valerie Coleman and her Portraits of Langston. Through their personal contact with the composer, they hope to educate the audience on how poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, and jazz have inspired her work.

A unique combo of trombonist Ben Culver, trumpeter Cameron Bessicks, and pianist Hongzi Fan are examining texture, structure, and expression in Jacques Casterede’s second movement of Concertino and Eric Ewazen’s Pastorale for Trumpet, Trombone, and Piano. They are discovering how the Concertino references and draws from earlier periods of music within the modern piece and its 20th-century harmonies to create the icy, nostalgic feeling invoked by the piece.

“The Ewazen evokes somewhat similar feelings, however where the Casterede is reserved and icy, the Ewazen is more romantic and warm,” said Ben Culver.

Lastly, a trio of clarinetist Lewis Vaden, violist Quinton Folks, and pianist Christine Hilbert will describe the historical atmosphere behind Schumann’s Fairy Tales, Op.132 for viola, clarinet and piano. Their project will provide insights into the mind of Schumann during the time of composition as well as the inspiration behind the piece.

“Quinton has tapped into a rich and satisfying sound that projects out into the room like never before. Lewis has really focused his ear and intonation to blend with the viola, yet remains a prominent component. My ears have opened to both the viola and clarinet parts so that I too, can blend, balance and participate in an appropriate way,” said Christine Hilbert. “Collectively, we are finding not only the balance in music, but also a balance in our voices as we bring individual insights and awareness to one another during rehearsals. This is a dream class. I think music in a context is so important and our lecture is going to facilitate that.”

We are convinced that the audience will agree.

The first performance of the Advanced Chamber Music class will take place on March 5 at 5 PM in Recital Hall, at James W. Black Music Center. Student presentations will take place on April 17, April 24, and May 1, between 5 and 6:30 PM in the James W. Black Music Center’s Recital Hall.  All events are free and open to the public.