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Keller's 'Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide' is a good primer

Author James Keller says he thinks chamber music is headed into a golden age because it is best suited for small venues. “Chamber music thrives . . . in a space that seats 100, 200 people,” he says.

Special to the Times

Author James Keller says he thinks chamber music is headed into a golden age because it is best suited for small venues. “Chamber music thrives . . . in a space that seats 100, 200 people,” he says.


Times Performing Arts Critic

One of the enduring cliches about chamber music is that it is a "musical conversation,'' and James Keller thinks that is not a bad way to describe the joy of string quartets, piano trios and other small-scale classical works.

"I suppose that all the music we hear is a musical conversation, to the extent that it's voices coming in and coming out, interacting in counterpoint,'' says Keller, who writes the program notes for both the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony. "But in chamber music with one player on a part, you can hear it so clearly, and you can see it as well. So I think it is a musical conversation.''

Keller has given a lot of thought to chamber music the past few years as he prepared his new book, Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide, which includes essays by him on 192 works. It's the latest entry in an excellent classical music series from Oxford University Press, joining the three volumes by the late Michael Steinberg on symphonies, concertos and choral music.

Works by 56 composers are covered in the book, with the usual suspects taking up plenty of space. Mozart has the most, with essays on 23 works, followed by Beethoven (19), Brahms (17) and Haydn (15). There is also a good selection of less familiar works, such as Martinu's String Quartet No. 5, the String Quartet of Ruth Crawford (later Seeger), Osvaldo Golijov's The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind and Joan Tower's Petroushskates.

There were, of course, some painful omissions from Chamber Music. "I think the very last piece I cut was the Verdi String Quartet,'' Keller says. "But out it went. If you ask a professional string quartet about their repertoire, it's probably not going to be on their A list.''

Keller, whose all-time favorite ensemble is the Beaux Arts Trio, thinks chamber music is headed into a golden age because it is best suited for intimate venues.

"These are traumatic times for opera companies and symphony orchestras,'' he says. "These institutions are tied into economic models that are no longer working well. Chamber music is, to a certain extent, exempt from that, because at its best it is made by three, four, five people who are doing it out of love, out of compulsion to excellence, unbounded by practical, financial exigencies. Where are we seeing success in the concert world right now? In small alternative performance spaces. And that's chamber music. Chamber music thrives not in a 2,000-seat hall, but rather in a space that seats 100, 200 people.''

Listeners with Keller's book in hand will be well equipped for three chamber music concerts in the Tampa Bay area over the next week.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

Florida Pro Musica

The period instrument trio of Judson Griffin (violin), Javier Caballero (cello) and Larry Kent (harpsichord) is joined by soprano Maggie Coleman in a Baroque chamber music program of Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann at 4 p.m. Sunday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa. $15. (813) 259-9744; floridapromusica.com.

Encore Chamber Series

Husband-wife pianists Pascal and Ami Roge help open Encore's 11th season at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. The couple plays Debussy's La Mer and Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole in the original piano four hands versions. They'll premiere Frizzante for piano four hands by composer Mark Sforzini, the Encore artistic director and former principal bassoon of the Florida Orchestra. The program also includes Schumann's Fantasiestucke for bassoon (Sforzini) and piano and Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes for piano four hands and vocal quartet of soprano Stella Zambalis, mezzo soprano Toby Newman, tenor Bryce Westervelt and baritone Joseph Ryan. $20. (727) 822-3590; mypalladium.org.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

The Sarasota Concert Association presents New York's leading chamber music group at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Van Wezel Hall. Musicians include pianist Wu Han, the society's artistic director, plus Erin Keefe and Arnaud Sussmann (violins), Mark Holloway and Paul Neubauer (violas), and Gary Hoffman and Jakob Koranyi (cellos) in the Brahms B-flat-major String Sextet and Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat major (Archduke). $35-$60. (941) 955-0040; sarasotaconcertassociation.org.

Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide

By James Keller

Oxford University Press, 494 pages, $39.95

Keller's 'Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide' is a good primer 02/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 3:30am]
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