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Conducting an interview
Q: How does each musician approach the intense demands performing and interpreting chamber music?
Stern: Each player — myself included — spent months polishing her/his own part before we came together to rehearse as a group. Then, over the course of a week, we discussed, experimented, weighed options (a delightful process!), until we arrived at a unified concept of just how we wished for the work to be presented. That’s the beauty of working on music like this — no detail is too small to be considered. If two instruments have a series of notes together, and manage to articulate and phrase them exactly alike, it can elevate the passage in question to far greater heights even if these notes are not in the foreground.
Q: The intimacy of chamber music presents some unique challenges. Does your job as a conductor change when moving from a full orchestra to a chamber setting?
Stern: A lot depends on what repertoire is being considered. The concert you attended featured four works by Mozart, two of which were for orchestra and the others for small, unconducted chamber ensembles. In the former, my goal was to make the music sound full and robust while maintaining its transparency; an orchestral work for small forces shouldn’t sound puny and can in fact have the same visceral impact as a work for an orchestra three or four times its size. When I play chamber music as a pianist with members of the Port Angeles Symphony, I try to shed any vestiges of my conductor’s leadership role; we are all equal partners and in matters of interpretation my voice carries no more or less weight than anyone else’s.
Q: The works of Mozart are notoriously difficult, particularly his chamber music. The intricacy and elegance of his compositions coupled with our familiarity with his style leave very little room for even the tiniest error. How did you and the rest of the musicians of the Port Angeles Symphony address these difficulties?
Stern: You’re absolutely right about those “tiny errors.” Years ago, when a colleague and I were discussing Mozart, she said, “More than any other composer, Mozart throws a cruel spotlight on any deficiencies you have as a musician!” So — you work harder, practice more diligently, make more mental notes in rehearsals so as to do better next time. The more attention to detail, the better; the sooner that the attention to detail becomes second nature, then more time can be spent on the expressive aspects of the music.
Q: You mentioned the “expressive aspects of the music.” In your experience does the chamber music of Mozart present a similar challenge at the interpretive level?
Stern: Well, you’re asking someone who thinks that Mozart’s is the most beautiful and perfect music ever written. I love it passionately and part of expressing that love is done with restraint. The first movement of the Piano Quartet in G minor is, to me, a very angry and passionate piece, but it has to be expressed in Mozartian terms; you wouldn’t (or, at least, I wouldn’t) play with the same force and weight that you would in an angry piece by Beethoven or Brahms, because it would overwhelm Mozart’s music. The nature of Mozart’s music is romantic, but it still has to be an expression of the Classical period.
Q: This concert was one of several single-composer chamber music programs which the Port Angeles Symphony will perform this year. What is the appeal of these concerts for the musicians involved and what can the audience anticipate hearing?
Stern: I think that doing an occasional concert of music by one composer is good for any performer. When you steep yourself in one composer’s sound, world and personality it brings you closer to that creative figure in a way that tends to stick for a long time. The challenge is to concoct concerts that show off different sides of the same creator. As to the future, we have two chamber concerts next season devoted to one composer each — Bach and Haydn — and, while I shouldn’t let the cat out of the bag quite so soon (try to stop me!), I have planned an all-Beethoven concert to open our symphony season of 2014-2015.
Reach Taylor Ackley at firstname.lastname@example.org.