Spotlight on the Arts

Strings under the Big Sky is July 13

By John Zirkle, Warren Miller Performing Arts Center

When you think of intimate classical music, what comes to mind?

Marble floors, decadent food, champagne flutes and tuxedo-clad waiters? Think of the scene in Titanic, when the ship is going down, and the string quartet decides to keep playing until the very end. Cheesy, yes, but it’s difficult not to tear up.

Aside from the gargantuan repertoire, the most interesting aspect of chamber music is that every performer plays her/his own part, unlike symphonic music. This is what makes it so hard, and also so volatile. Every performer is completely exposed, and there is serious potential for failure.

During college, I always struggled with chamber music. The idiom had a certain pomp to it that pushed me away. I didn’t get it.

But then I started studying the early music of Arnold Schoenberg, who competes with the likes of Wagner, Brahms and even Beethoven in the chamber music world. One specific piece of his, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), written for string sextet, changed my outlook on this perplexing medium.

Throughout Verklärte Nacht, the performers must endure extremely dissonant harmonic passages, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet melodic phrases, and the entire gamut of melodramatic expression. It’s based on a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel that explores the relationship between a man and a woman pregnant with another’s man’s baby. The woman is ashamed, but by the end of the poem, the man convinces her that love will transfigure the child into their own.

When you listen to the music, it’s almost as though you’re eavesdropping on the lovers’ conversation, following along through the woman’s anguish and the man’s assuaging words of comfort. And because each musician is playing a separate part, it really sounds like the performers are speaking to each other.

That’s exactly what chamber music is: a conversation.

Conceptually, it’s really not so different from a bluegrass jam session, a jazz trio or even a barbershop quartet. It’s a small group of people, communicating nonverbally and having a good time on stage. I don’t see any need to make it any more complicated.

On July 13, down at Rainbow Ranch, Big Sky will have the opportunity to enjoy some fantastic chamber music (sans pomp) by members of the Muir String Quartet at the Strings Under the Big Sky Event. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

Spotlight on the Arts is a reflection on the world of performing arts in both historic and contemporary contexts. To hear examples of Schoenberg and The Muir String Quartet, go to muirstringquartet.org. Verklärte Nacht has been recorded by countless chamber music ensembles, and can be found all over the internet. The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, scheduled to be completed by December 2012, will feature acts that challenge the way we see and think about performance.