The Albany Symphony Orchestra and Music Director David Alan Miller perform a chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and the premiere of Andre Myers’s Black & Alive for chamber orchestra. Photo by Gary Gold.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra and Music Director David Alan Miller perform a chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and the premiere of Andre Myers’s Black & Alive for chamber orchestra. Photo by Gary Gold.

In Brief | Symphonic blockbusters are being swapped out for chamber-sized works as orchestras adapt to pandemic health guidelines. Fresh discoveries abound—for musicians, orchestras, and audiences.
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Orchestras are thinking small—as in the size of ensembles, the size of audiences, the size of programs. Granted, it was not entirely by choice. Pandemic-related restrictions on the number of persons allowed to gather, indoors or out, and social-distancing guidelines for onstage set-ups have meant measuring programs out in 60-minute segments and six-foot increments. Yet amidst it all, a bit of silver lining has been glimpsed, as symphony orchestras embrace the power of chamber music.

“It’s a time of great discovery, and realizing that small is not necessarily bad. I would not argue against great orchestras and the Mahler symphonies—sometimes I really miss the big string sound—but there is great beauty to smaller works,” says Albany Symphony Orchestra Music Director David Alan Miller. The ASO did turn to Mahler, actually, in a chamber arrangement of his Fourth Symphony (more on Mahler 4 later). Like so many groups, the Albany Symphony also sought out works written specifically for smaller ensembles, like Brahms’s Serenade No. 1, originally scored by the composer for eight to nine instruments, and reductions of larger orchestral works, like Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. “You don’t want people thinking, well, we couldn’t do the real piece so we did this watered-down version. But there are all these really wonderful arrangements and transcriptions made by the composers themselves or their disciples throughout history,” says Miller.

As orchestras began cautiously returning to their concert halls this fall, a few with limited in-person audiences, others with contactless virtual performances, reimagined seasons largely began with string ensembles. Tchaikovsky or Dvořák might still be on the program, but serenades took over from symphonies. Orchestras reached almost instinctively for the string serenades by those composers, even as they began thinking about other repertoire. “It was easy to say, let’s go with the Dvořák String Serenade and Tchaikovsky String Serenade,” says Jeremy Rothman, vice president of artistic planning at the Philadelphia Orchestra. “That’s really low-hanging fruit, but it’s also a good way for the orchestra to get their feet back underneath them, in playing in these new environments.” A performance of the Tchaikovsky Serenade recorded at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in August for digital streaming was the first time musicians had been together on stage in more than four months.

Symphony orchestras are embracing the power of chamber music.

In a number of cases, the customary serenades have been paired with George Walker’s lesser-known Lyric for Strings. That work’s more somber tone, scaled up or down in the number of musicians employed, emerged as an elegiac response to troubled times at orchestras nationwide this season, while also highlighting the music of an African American composer whose name might not be as familiar to audiences. Lyric for Strings, written in 1946, is the most frequently performed of Walker’s works, and its presence on many orchestral programs this season speaks for its power—and orchestras’ growing recognition of works by Walker and other Black composers, past and present.

For some orchestras, the reimagined season was a chance to get reacquainted with works that are not frequently performed. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings in October was its first in twenty years. The same program also included the orchestra’s first performance of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen in more than three decades. In other cases, performance of string serenades was a chance to connect with audiences in a new way. The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra performed each of the Tchaikovsky and Dvořák serenades for its online CSO On Demand series, which was recorded live at the Knight Theater. “These are pieces we never really play on our main series because we have much bigger works,” says General Manager John Clapp. Listening to the first performance, which included the Tchaikovsky Serenade and Grieg’s Holberg Suite for Strings, Clapp says he was struck by how his concerns about presenting a small ensemble of socially distanced players in a 1,200-seat theater, with no audience, seemed to diminish. “It was a real adjustment, at first, for the musicians,” he says. “But by moving them apart and using more of the [acoustic] shell, it actually had a warmer sound—a big sound.”

The Charlotte Symphony turned to its musicians in retooling its regular On Tap concerts, performed at a local brewery. The series morphed from an indoor event with a chamber orchestra of about twenty musicians to chamber-ensemble performances in the venue’s outdoor garden. Musicians took the lead in suggesting works they had been playing in informal appearances around the city over the summer. On one program, cellist Jeremy Lamb’s arrangements of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2 and Waltz No. 2 and William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag sat alongside his own jazz-inflected compositions.

As orchestras cautiously returned to concert halls this fall, some with limited in-person audiences, others with contactless virtual performances, reimagined seasons largely began with string ensembles.

Orchestras of all sizes have been seeking input from musicians who particularly love performing chamber music. “Conductors who have pretty deep symphonic repertoire don’t necessarily get to do a lot of chamber orchestra repertoire, so it’s always good to get ideas [from musicians] because everybody comes from different places,” says St. Louis Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard. “There are all these little gems, things I would not have heard unless I was, say, a flutist or a harpist.” She points to one program curated, in part, by Principal Harp Allegra Lily that included Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, and Reflections, by the American composer and flutist Katherine Hoover. That performance was part of SLSO fall programming that alternated weeks of chamber orchestra and smaller chamber ensemble concerts.

At the Cleveland Orchestra, Chief Artistic Officer Mark Williams took inspiration from guest artist Yefim Bronfman, who suggested Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings as an alternative to the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 he had originally been scheduled to perform. Williams did not know the work well and it proved something of a revelation, paired with an instrumentally expanded version of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 (“Harp”). The quartet’s nickname comes from pizzicato string phrasing in the first movement. The quartet made for an interesting musical challenge—“It’s hard enough for a quartet of people. Now expand that to 40 people, at six- to seven-foot distance,” says Williams—and the performance was recorded for digital streaming. Since Severance Hall was able to accommodate slightly more than the maximum of 30 or so musicians permitted at many venues, he wanted to push the limits of a familiar work. The musical ideas of late Beethoven quartets are so big, he says, that the sound can be almost more than the instruments of a typical string quartet can bear. “That goes away when you have a larger group. It’s created an opportunity to be challenged artistically, and I think that’s also very important, in this bizarre season.”

About That Mahler 4

A desire to keep stretching artistic boundaries found chamber versions of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 popping up on programs across the country. The Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra in North Dakota had planned a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 for its season opener. When it became apparent that would not be feasible, Executive Director Paul Hegland and Music Director Christopher Zimmerman began looking for alternatives. “I knew that many Mahler symphonies had been arranged for small groups, but I did not know that almost every single one had,” says Zimmermann. He had never conducted one of those arrangements when the orchestra decided upon the Fourth Symphony. “I was a bit nervous about that, how it was going to be, if it was going to lose a huge part of what Mahler is. But in some ways the distillation of the huge forces brings out the essence of the piece. It gets right to the core.” With a total of fifteen socially distanced musicians, he adds, “Every player knew the spotlight was on them, one on a part. They came to this project super prepared, super focused.”

That focus on musicians was amplified in a conversation included as part of the virtual concert; the performance was filmed at the orchestra’s venue at North Dakota State University. Zimmermann and Concertmaster Sonja Bosca-Harasim discussed Mahler’s use of a secondary tuning for the violin solo in the second movement, and she demonstrated differences between the two instruments she used in the performance. Viewers were then primed to look for the changeover, waiting to see when the second violin, perched neatly on a table next to Bosca-Harasim, would come into play.

The Fargo-Moorhead Symphony used the 2007 Klaus Simon arrangement of the Fourth Symphony. At the Albany Symphony, Miller chose to conduct another recent chamber arrangement by Iain Farrington instead of Simon’s or the 1920 Erwin Stein arrangement used by several other groups. “This one is much more orchestral. I find it much more compelling,” Miller says. “I was really impressed with how of much of the piece is still in this version, and how you have a really different experience by virtue of hearing the lines so clearly.”

Soprano Adrienne Danrich served as soloist in the chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony; she also performed songs that included her own Breathe, which was written in response to the killing of George Floyd. At the Albany Symphony, the chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth was performed along with the premiere of Andre Myers’s Black & Alive for chamber orchestra. Myers worked on the ASO commission in early summer, as protests calling for racial justice gripped the nation. The title reflects his own thoughts and hopes as an African American, and the work moves through march rhythms to an uplifting resolution. The need to reimagine concert seasons on the fly, to program works written for fewer performers, and to consider that performances might not take place at all (the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony had to cancel its taping of a second concert in November when an uptick to in COVID-19 cases put the safety of musicians and crew at risk) have all meant a chance to address current events in a way that was never possible with larger pieces and long-range planning.

Orchestras might eventually look back at this period with a bit of gratitude for the unexpected freedom, says Williams, of the Cleveland Orchestra. “We might be able to reflect as an industry on what it means for us to be able to respond to what happens in real time in our world. Maybe we will leave a little wiggle room in our schedules so we can do that.”

Shortened concerts—limited to about an hour, without intermission, due to safety concerns—have also reshaped the very structure of orchestra programs; today, programs aren’t following the usual overture/concerto/symphony model, and even works by traditional composers are their shorter or smaller-ensemble scores, equal in length and instrumentation to the contemporary pieces being performed. Contemporary works that may have been overshadowed by full symphonies are suddenly more prominent, with a more diverse range of composers in the lineup.

Contemporary works for smaller musical forces are suddenly more prominent, with a more diverse range of composers in the lineup.

That’s benefitted composers whose portfolios lean toward chamber music. The Philadelphia Orchestra has commissioned and premiered works from Valerie Coleman including the orchestral version of her Umoja, and the 2020 tribute to frontline workers, Seven O’Clock Shout. However, Rothman says he first became acquainted with her smaller pieces. “So now it’s an opportunity to say, okay, we can do some of her chamber music.” Likewise, the orchestra had first performed music by Jessie Montgomery, her Coincident Dances, in March (coincidentally, on the last program with live audience before the shutdown). Rothman had also first become aware of Montgomery through her chamber music, and in the new landscape, “there were these works that were already available that were perfect.” The orchestra gave its first performance of Montgomery’s Starburst in December 2020 (paired with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, coincidentally).

Starburst was also performed by the St. Louis Symphony in October—and indeed, the work is pretty much ubiquitous this season. The St. Louis Symphony had commissioned a full orchestral version of the work for the season opener, and still plans to present that version down the road, according to Bernard. But experience with chamber performances this season has given Bernard a whole new perspective. The SLSO began welcoming 100 to 150 patrons into the 2,700-seat Powell Hall for live performances (pausing in November and December when COVID cases started rising). Bernard was a bit surprised by the interest in chamber music, with half the ticketholders being first-timers, and by the robust sound produced in the space. “We’ve been chasing possible chamber venues for years, thinking, oh, we can’t have chamber music in Powell Hall, it’s too big. Now we’re thinking very differently,” she says.

The need to reimagine concert seasons on the fly has meant a chance to address current events in a way that was never possible with long-range planning.

The very nature of chamber performance has been rethought in a new project at the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. In November, the orchestra’s collaboration with the Riverlights Music Festival, Octet, was unveiled at the South Bend Museum of Art. Visitors encounter an installation consisting of eight speakers, situated in a circle, each projecting the individual lines of musicians performing the Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer, Andante Festivo by Sibelius, and the Jig from Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite. Octet allows listeners to immerse themselves in the music by moving around the circle to zero in on specific instruments, then step back to hear the ensemble blend. A group of eight South Bend musicians was recorded in a socially distanced performance for the project.

Octet was created in response to the pandemic, but the portable installation may continue to play a part in the orchestra’s plans going forward. The South Bend Symphony envisions recording additional chamber pieces and taking the installation to schools, hospitals, and other places where listeners can find a new way into the music, even when they can’t be in the presence of musicians. 


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Symphony magazine.

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