The Chicago Chamber Consortium is a network of seven chamber-music groups (Rookwood, CUBE, the Exsultate Trio, the Burgundian Consort, the Chicago Ensemble, the Chicago String Ensemble, and the American Women Composers, Midwest) that would normally be in competition for audiences and financing. Instead they have banded together to save money on their publicity, management, booking, and grant writing. I recently talked with three women from the consortium about some of the chronic problems of chamber groups: Maria Lagios, a voice teacher and soprano in the Exsultate Trio who’s also known for her roles with Chicago Opera Theater and is president of the consortium; Patricia Morehead, an oboist, composer, and member of CUBE and the American Women Composers, Midwest; and Susan Pellowe, an administrator for the consortium but not a musician. I myself have sung roles at Chicago Opera Theater and have sung for years in the Lyric Opera chorus.

Bryan Miller: What are the problems faced by performing-arts groups in general and chamber-music groups in particular?

Maria Lagios: Discussing problems is always easy, because there always seem to be more problems than there are solutions. The primary problem is funding–getting people to be willing to pay for quality chamber music. And the second problem is competing with all the other media and entertainment and input that people are bombarded with–TV, CDs, everything. It makes it very difficult to reinstill in humanity the importance of live music, the excitement of live music, the experience of being there when it happens. We’ve gotten away from that. We’ve gotten into the mind-set of nothing but perfect music, where it’s recorded several times over, with everything corrected on tape. People are so used to perfection that they’re not risk takers anymore. So you have to find the audience, you have to generate the enthusiasm, and you have to find a way to make it at least minimally profitable.

BM: Is this a problem of chamber music as opposed to symphonic music or opera?

ML: Absolutely. The glamour and the extravaganza, the boldness and the sound that come from a larger group are always more attractive. Even in our Chamber Consortium, the Chicago String Ensemble has the strongest following just because of their size. And that’s just the way it goes–the smaller the group, the harder you have to work to make an impression, to find the following for your particular kind of music.

BM: Do you find yourself at all limited in a group that consists just of harp, flute, and soprano?

ML: Of course it’s limited. But the limitations are in many ways an asset, because what you’re able to do is refine and enjoy and experience something singular that one does not experience when working with a large force of musicians. I’ve done opera, and I know what it’s like. It’s wonderful and it’s terrific, but the chances of getting it all right are pretty slim. The chances of getting a performance that’s exactly the way you want it when you’re working with one other musician or two other musicians is much higher. And the rewards are there too for the musician. I think the intellectual stimulation for a musician is fabulous–the intricacy of working out all the nuances in fine ensemble work. Somehow I think that gets sacrificed in working with a larger ensemble.

Pat Morehead: We’re in a period financially where no major arts organization has enough time to do a really good job. Things are always being done in a limited time frame, with an eye on the cost, in the large organizations. The Chicago Symphony has the least rehearsal time of any major orchestra in this country and probably the largest number of concerts. So pieces are getting at most two rehearsals, which means that there’s no room for new works. They’re making an attempt to do something about it, but they have to raise special funding to have extra rehearsals for a new piece.

ML: Chamber musicians will give their time endlessly to get it the way they want it.

PM: We don’t count the hours.

ML: We will rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, because there’s such joy in it that there’s no time frame that stresses us. It’s a labor of love.

PM: But as a result you get a much more high quality concert than you’ll get at Orchestra Hall. They do put on chamber-music concerts there, and it is possible in the large hall. But because of the extravagance and the size, the kind of fine detail that chamber music thrives on is lost.

BM: Pat, your group, CUBE, plays contemporary music exclusively. Do you have special problems because of that?

PM: Oh, yes. We’re tied back into what the marketplace will buy and sell–lots of concerts for Mozart, who’s been dead 200 years, but no concerts for contemporary composers living and working right here in Chicago. The music establishment in this country is run strictly by the market. It’s not run by artists, it’s not run by composers–and it used to be. We’re talking about keeping an enormous museum of music alive. It is not the music of our time; it is not the music of our culture. It’s just a museum piece.

ML: There’s something we have to contend with all the time, and it’s that as chamber musicians we have the option to be much more creative, simply because we sacrifice so much financially. That’s why we exist–to make new things. We do so many transcriptions, so many new approaches to hearing a piece of music. Folk songs that were never done with the harp before, which we’ve found to be very refreshing. French art songs that weren’t set for harp, and all of a sudden you add a flute obbligato–the whole thing takes on a different color. And that’s very exciting, that’s the beauty of chamber music. But we have to compete constantly with this desire by the public to hear only the tried and true, the popular, the traditional favorites. We have to be innovative. CUBE is–your programs are not intimidating.

PM: But people do not know that. So many people find all new music intimidating.

BM: But so much of it seems to be egregiously cacophonous.

PM: That’s a matter of opinion and training and listening! There are probably 60 years of 20th-century music that people have not been listening to and that they do not know. Audiences have not been allowed–and I say allowed–to hear it by the music industry. The audience has been deprived of some very great music of this century. Whether in the next century they will go back and appreciate these composers for the genius they have, I don’t know.

ML: The other thing is that “popular” music has become so much a part of American life and even European life. American pop music has become so prevalent, and this new-wave or new-age music–it’s placebo music. It’s for an empty mind frame. Maybe it’s because we’re an overstimulated society that people want this kind of music, are attracted to it. They’re so constantly bombarded with things that they seek that as a form of release.

It’s a pity, because I–although I know Pat feels so strongly about contemporary music–I get the same sense of release from listening to Bach and Mozart. I do find that contemporary music tends to be very, very stimulating, and there are times when my mind is not ready to take it in.

PM: Well, contemporary music is so eclectic that you really cannot label what is happening, because everything is happening. And it may be that, viewed from the next century, the classical music of this country will be jazz and nothing else. Jazz is now being accepted, is becoming part of the conservatory. Jazz is now called an art form, which is also synonymous with not making a living at it anymore.

ML: Jazz of course, and also the film industry. I really feel that the film industry will be the mark of the arts in the 20th century. What we put on film with music and all the other extras will be the statement of our time in terms of artistic expression.

BM: Now there’s a frightening thought: John Williams, the great appropriator, taken as one of the outstanding composers of our day.

PM: You’re right–he knows how to steal from the best. But there are other film composers who have written a score that is totally original–the score for Aliens, for example. There are some electronic composers, some very serious atonal composers in the film industry who have written, in the horror-film genre or the space-odyssey genre, some scores that are first-rate. But the film score is like an opera score; very rarely do you separate the score from the film. You don’t listen to the score separately until you’ve seen the film and can re-create it in your mind’s eye. Opera is somewhat the same thing. You can re-create the opera in your mind because you have that relationship.

Now, some operas are strong enough that the music will carry it. That’s unusual though. I feel that The Rite of Spring should never be separated from the ballet. You’re doing a great disservice to what Stravinsky wrote it for. It’s a very strong musical score, so it can have an existence outside of the art form it was intended to go with. But I feel that listening to a ballet or an opera on a recording is only about 10 percent of what an opera’s all about.

ML: But there are scores, like The Rite of Spring, that seem to surpass the aspects of the other genre. Look at Alexander Nevsky. Prokofiev’s score will live on and on, but the movie–

PM: But if you have the whole thing together, that’s greater than one part. They do play a lot of ballet music at Orchestra Hall. It’s another way of keeping this museum going, in a way that’s not so costly. If you give Stravinsky’s music with ballet, you’ve suddenly tripled the cost. It’s just not financially viable.

ML: We were speaking of modern pieces, and I know of cases where groups decided against doing contemporary pieces that they’d scheduled. Contemporary composers sometimes just make it too difficult.

PM: No, I’m sorry–musicians are just not well enough trained.

ML: You think that?

PM: That’s a whole other argument.

BM: But take an opera like Britten’s Albert Herring. It’s a delightful work, but I always got the impression that Britten was showing off just how technically difficult he could make a piece of music, demonstrating just how clever he was. So some of these pieces are more difficult than they need to be–and that makes them less accessible, just because it makes them harder to perform. I know of one production of Albert Herring where a revival was scotched because the original performers simply refused to go through the agony a second time.

PM: Well, that’s singers.

BM: No, I’m not just talking about singers. I’m talking about a group of extremely competent instrumental- ists–

PM: Singers are the worst trained of all!


PM: Singers sometimes will not try new music at all.

BM: Singers are not trained like instrumentalists, from an early age. Many of them do not discover their voices–and start to get musical training–until college.

PM: If every singer could sight-sing well coming out of a college music program, they’d be able to work. They’re so limited by not being able to sight-read. Instrumentalists are trained to sight-read from the beginning. And so should everybody.

BM: But often learning a piece of modern music takes too much time and trouble to make it worth doing.

PM: Well, we would need more rehearsal time with Beethoven if we didn’t know the style. It was hard when it was new, Brahms was hard when it was new, Wagner was extremely difficult when it was new. New scores are always difficult. But in our conservatories, we only school the musician up through Prokofiev. The skills needed for anything past that period, we don’t get them in conservatory training. So we’re sending musicians out who are incapable–or crippled–to do new music.

BM: And if the musicians are crippled, then what must the audiences be?

PM: Well, the audience has been left out of the whole process. And the performer is the access to the audience.

Susan Pellowe: It’s a vicious cycle. Because if you don’t make the new music available to be heard, then singers and instrumentalists aren’t used to hearing it, so it’s more difficult for them to perform it.

PM: There was a piece that was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra but was not played. In the contract of the Philadelphia Orchestra, they will play quintuplets [beats with five 16th notes instead of four], but they won’t play a quintuplet that has one 16th note left out. Quintuplets are not that hard, but they have conditions in their union contract about what they will play rhythmically. And that’s ridiculous.

The symphony is more a museum of the past than the Art Institute. You can walk into the Art Institute and see the art of today. But the Chicago Symphony–it was the last major orchestra to have a composer-in-residence in this country. They finally caved in. But then you had John Corigliano leaving town, screaming at the symphony for how they treated him. Now, Shulamit Ran will probably charm their socks off.

But to get back to chamber music. As Maria said, since it is a labor of love, chamber musicians have been in the forefront of what’s being done for [contemporary] composers–because they will take the time, they will give of themselves.

BM: And they don’t need enormous resources to do even intensely difficult modern music.

PM: I’ve been doing some research for a concert we’ve been asked to do for the library, of music written in the Eastern bloc. American composers have written more chamber music than large-forms music, because that’s been their access to performers. When it comes to symphonic and orchestral and oratorio forms, your composers in the States have come to realize, Why spend two years of your life writing an opera if nobody’s going to do it? Why take a year, or a year and a half, or however long it takes you to do a large orchestral work that you’ll never hear in your lifetime? But when you look at the Europeans, they have hardly any chamber music because their countries commission opera, oratorio, ballet, orchestral music.

ML: That’s because it’s a subsidized program.

PM: Exactly.

ML: It’s a different approach to making music and paying for it. That’s where you get into the funding.

PM: But it is performed, and it is funded. These countries take a great pride in supporting their composers. We don’t have that tradition here. But I would say that it’s the small chamber group that has kept the American composer alive and creative.

BM: The European countries may fund contemporary music, and it may get performed, but that doesn’t mean the audiences are there. I recall attending a “modern ballet evening” in Munich once, where I was one of approximately ten people in the whole of the balcony. If it’s not good, people won’t come.

ML: It’s a real contradiction sometimes, it’s a real problem for us, because we are committed in many ways to a “museum” form as you describe. I won’t give you an argument there. Because we love that music ourselves, as musicians. And it’s so difficult to excite people about [contemporary music] sometimes, especially funders and people who have the money to help create something new and different. They tend to give the money to–

PM: They’ve lost a sense of risk. The most alive I have ever seen Lyric Opera was during Satyagraha. The opera house was alive and scared and nervous and excited–because they were doing an opera with a living composer, and he was going to be in the house. Was he going to be pleased? Was he going to be horrified? It was a sense of living on the edge. If the composer’s there, everybody’s extra nervous. Everybody’s extra on their toes. There’s a sense of excitement with something that’s done in the here and now. I can walk in there with my eyes closed and know if they’re doing a museum piece or if they’re doing something by a 20th-century composer. And there’s a commitment, fortunately, to doing it well–whether the singers like doing it or not.

BM: I must admit I tired of spending one or two hours two or three nights a week for six months memorizing Satyagraha, when we had so much other music to learn. Memorizing repetitive Sanskrit–

PM: It’s rather tortuous. But it’s the only time the chorus has ever had a standing ovation at the opera house. Everybody hated it before opening night, but then 90 percent of your colleagues did a flip-flop and decided they loved it.

BM: I’m not aware of a major flip-flop. There are still plenty of jokes circulating backstage about “Satyahooha.” I found Satyagraha an interesting experience, and I took pride in doing it well. But we still had to spend too much time on it. And that’s still one of the problems with new music in general.

PM: But every new opera should take that kind of time. That’s the point. We don’t devote the resources to do new music properly.

ML: It’s rather risky to do it. But it’s risky to do chamber music–traditional chamber music.

BM: When you do chamber music, you’re in a more intimate setting, and you’re presenting yourself right up close to your audience.

PM: Which you don’t do at Orchestra Hall. One of the major problems Chicago has is that we have no hall for chamber music in the city.

BM: What would the ideal chamber-music hall be?

PM: Bennett Hall up at Ravinia is not the most beautiful hall I’ve seen, but it’s the right size and the right stage for chamber music. I think it seats 500 to 800 people. And we need that hall downtown.

ML: But we have places for chamber music. We have good places for chamber music, even now. We need to cultivate the use of those places. There’s the hall at the Field Museum, there are places in the Art Institute where chamber music is effective.

PM: But we don’t have access to those halls.

ML: We have to get access to the halls that exist; we have to create more programs in the buildings that we have, rather than just build more halls. We have churches–

PM: Churches function well for certain repertoires, but not for all. And when you go to a church, you’re always at the mercy of whether there might be a funeral–church functions always take precedence over any musical functions. In the new buildings you run into a couple of things: a lack of decent pianos, and a lack of acoustics.

ML: But a decent piano can be obtained.

PM: For a thousand dollars.

ML: That’s a problem. What do you think of that hall in the First National Bank building?

PM: Dead.

BM: I think new halls are built with the idea that people are going to be miked anyway, so they’re not designed with decent acoustics in mind.

PM: That’s right. Basically, the new halls and building spaces are made for lectures and presentations. They’re not made for music. If they were, they’d still be fine for lecturing. But it would take more time and more wood to build them.

But there’s a real lack of a hall downtown, and each of our groups needs to have an opportunity to perform in a downtown situation. Ganz Hall, in Roosevelt University, is good. But it’s on the seventh floor, and the elevators usually aren’t working.

ML: But the beauty of chamber music is that you really don’t have to have an extremely special place to do it. The whole genre originated in making music in a small salon or a living room.

BM: So while you’re not making any money doing it, it’s also less expensive to put together.

PM: And that’s the other side of making a sacrifice. You grow artistically while doing chamber music–all musicians grow artistically doing chamber music.

ML: Chicago Ensemble does wonderful concerts in art galleries, in old homes. We get calls for concerts in libraries and museums, and we have to make the music accessible to people, and take the music to them.

We have lots of invitations to do concerts. What we need is funding. We have regional libraries that would book us every month if they could–they fill their halls when we perform, with people who enjoy the concerts, who want to hear more concerts. There are museums, colleges–they love to have chamber music, they want to support it, but they can’t afford it.

BM: So, Susan, what’s the role of chamber music? Is it entertainment? Is it a chance for an intimate musical experience? Is it an educational experience?

SP: It’s all of that. It’s uplifting and entertaining and a sort of trampoline for the mind, for the senses, for spirituality. The term I’ve been using–and it’s not new with me; I’m stealing it–is “informances.” I think that’s something that the consortium seems to specialize in and do awfully well: outreach concerts. I like “informances” better than outreach. Outreach sounds like you’re being preached to and reached out to–“Oh, you poor thing.” An informance has all the joy of a performance, but you also learn something. We’re not so elitist as to think you’ll come in and know all about it.

I think people often have a preconception, that they have to get dressed up and go someplace special for a concert. In theater, which is a lot of my background, there’s been a tremendous revolution. It used to be that you got all dressed up to go to the theater. Well, now if you go to the theater, you wear whatever you happen to feel like wearing that night. It’s much more democratic.

PM: That’s because theater in Chicago is theater of our time. Theater is alive and well and healthy. Music is moribund and elitist and stuck in the past. People think they have to dress up for it.

ML: No, I’m sorry. If you go to a Chamber Music Chicago concert, you see the same kind of audience. You see people come with anything on. In our audiences too. That’s something that chamber music allowed much more willingly than the opera or the symphony. Quite honestly, you even see it at the symphony–there’s a big difference between the way people dress on the box circle and on the third gallery. You’re going to see a different attitude there too.

But Susan’s comment about “informance”–this is such an important thing right now, because we are in this constant influx of information. What’s happened is that we’ve experienced a washout, an intellectual washout. People know a little about a lot and nothing about some things. And they think they know chamber music. You’ll hear people who’ve graduated from college say, “Oh, I like chamber music”–and they may have heard one string quartet. That was their only exposure. Which is good–it means they liked it. But we don’t find a real knowledge of the music, of the repertoire. And consequently we need to do a lot of sharing of this information through our performing.

BM: Is it because chamber music is viewed as elitist, or is it because people just aren’t aware of it?

ML: I think it’s some of both. But I think that more and more it’s that we’ve become so technologically oriented that people home in on particular things in their lives. They have a narrow tunnel vision. They can’t handle all the input. And I think they simply don’t know about it.

PM: Entertainment is too easily accessible in our culture. To attend a chamber-music concert, you have to go out.

BM: In an age of cocooning.

ML: Yes. You’re competing with just entertainment, as opposed to a cultural experience.

PM: And the chamber-music concert runs the danger of being accused of being elitist. It takes concentration–you need to bring yourself to it and be open to listen. You can’t just go into a relaxed frame of mind. Entertainment music is something for people to relax to. Chamber music is something where the audience and the performer should be actively joined together.

ML: Well, that’s always the goal of the performers. They want to have the feeling that they are actively communicating with their audience. Which means that the audience is involved.

PM: And that’s where the soul and the spirit become involved. You’re not just sitting back and watching a football game.

SP: But some people become very involved in their football games. And I don’t think you have to get ultrainvolved. Sometimes I think it’s all right just to sit there and let the music wash over you, and just experience pure pleasure. I don’t think you always have to know a lot about it to open yourself to it. You can learn while you’re there.

ML: It’s the exposure that’s important. Right now we have to compete with this massive input of sports in the schools. By the time kids are 13, there’s no question that they have to be in the minority to prefer the arts over some sport activity.

BM: Is it because our schools push sports, or because our culture does?

ML: I think it’s our culture. When you go to Europe, it’s not like that. In Europe education is different. Kids stay with their musical instruments longer, and music is more a part of the home.

BM: In Europe sports are not a part of the schools. They’re completely extracurricular. The schools are strictly for academics.

ML: That’s right. We were in Prague this summer, and I was amazed at the chamber musicians on the street–on the bridges, in the corners, in little cafes. And people were listening, because they’ve lived with it, they’ve been raised with it, they all play instruments. Everyone in Czechoslovakia prides themselves on being able to play two or three instruments. That’s not the mind-set here.

SP: But they don’t have reliable color televisions. And VCRs.

BM: They may not have them now–

PM: But we’re going to make sure they have them shortly.

ML: But they’ve provided their own entertainment. And we’ve gotten away from that.

BM: But don’t we all enjoy being able to just throw on a CD of something we might not otherwise get to hear?

SP: Absolutely. It’s a wonderful age to be alive and be able to have all that. It’s just that now and then you have to get out and hear something live, because the difference is so enormous. And you forget that if you let yourself stay home. It’s a question of discipline.

PM: My father won’t go to classical concerts anymore. The chairs are uncomfortable, he has no legroom, and people make noise around him. So he stays home with his CDs.

BM: I’m always a little stunned when I get on the other side of the orchestra pit by just how noisy it is and how hard it is to concentrate.

PM: Do you know how much quieter the audience at the opera has gotten since the introduction of supertitles? There are no husbands snoring anymore. The whole audience is a lot quieter.

SP: But to go back to your question of risk. Audiences need to take risks. And part of the problem for us at the consortium is that people can’t afford to go around and try all these things. “What if I don’t like it, and I’ve spent $20 on it? What else could I do with my $20? I could rent ten videotapes that I know I’m going to like.” So it’s partly a question of affordability, which is one reason the consortium tries to find organizations to take a risk and underwrite concerts, so that people can hear the music free or for a very minimal amount.

Our whole purpose is to reach out, to make music available to people, and to help them learn how to listen to it and realize that they enjoy it. I’ve only been on the job for a few months, and one of the first things I had to do was write a major grant application–and that sent me through the files. It’s been great fun to go through the files and read some of the comments we’ve received. One gal came to a library one day to do some research. She said, “I had no idea there was going to be a concert here today. But it made my day!” That’s something the consortium does–it puts music in people’s way, where they can fall across it and then react to it. And we make it familiar to children, so that they can learn to listen to those atonalities. We have to convince funders that if they fund something in a grade school, it will reach an important audience, kids will love it.

ML: People seem to think that kids can only handle popular music. I don’t even like that label “popular.” It includes too many different types of music. It’s very hard to say what it is and what it’s not. People like it, and it becomes “popular.” Well, there’s nothing wrong with things that people like–we certainly want them to like chamber music. Chamber music too has a connotation about it, through the years of being something old–and it’s obviously not that. It’s a very livable and active art form. In the consortium we have seven groups that present at least ten centuries of music.

One of the reasons the consortium exists–and as far as I know it’s unique to Chicago–is to be a network of musicians, of quality chamber groups who share, who work together on establishing funding, who work together on programming, who often exchange staff. One artist will be a visiting performer with another group. There’s a great degree of peer respect in the group, and this is a very positive force.

PM: And what it is also working toward is cultivating your local artist, your artist of Chicago–not your artist of the big concert scene, the expensive superstar. We’re cultivating a genre where you’re hearing the best of your performers in the area, something which really needs cultivation for the whole industry to be collectively healthy.

ML: Absolutely. And Chicago is such an exciting city for music, and chamber music must be an active part of that exciting scene. We have an excellent symphony, we have two excellent opera companies, we have a lot of popular music being created here, a lot of jazz, a lot of commercial music–and we have a wonderful chamber-music scene that needs to be shared, to be continued, to be recognized.

But I don’t think people know we exist. I don’t think it’s common knowledge that there’s a network of musicians working in the city to establish a strong chamber-music program for all audiences–not for one elitist group, not in one neighborhood, not in one specific location–

PM: And not in one genre!

BM: Have you ever tried to form a series, composed of your different groups?

ML: Yes, we did, three years ago. We did a series at Burnham Park. It was successful, but not financially successful. Unfortunately, we were competing with the jazz festival and the blues festival.

BM: What seems strange to me is that this seems like a laudable thing–you’re sharing staff, you’ve got the economies of scale, you’re bringing music to people, you’ve got a great, unique idea–so why am I not reading about the consortium in the mainstream press?

PM: The mainstream newspaper critics really only have time and room in their papers for the large groups which take out the large advertisements. What’s reviewed is related to what’s bought. And we can’t afford $900 for an ad that you can barely find in the Chicago Tribune. That’s what it costs with a nonprofit rate–about $900 for a little box.

If you take a look at what’s reviewed the most, it’s films. And who buys the most advertising? Movies. Followed by pop groups. So what’s reviewed in the classical-music scene is tied in with the advertising. They’re running a business, and while one could say they owe a debt to artists, the newspaper doesn’t see it that way.

I don’t fault the major critics for not coming and reviewing local arts groups–they’re not allowed the space to review them. And one of my favorite pet peeves in Chicago is the Friday-Saturday review of the Chicago Symphony–it’s the same review published twice. I’ve lived in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto, and I’ve never seen that in any other city in my life. And this when there’s so little space for reviews of classical music!

I will say that Scotty Banks [Elaine Scott Banks, founder of the late City Musick] was able to build her group up through the newspapers. The support she got from the critics in this town was a large part of building her audience. And hats off to her, because she is a brilliant musician, and she’s a great loss.

ML: She had problems with her budgeting though.

PM: Don’t we all?

ML: Well, you can’t spend money you don’t have, Pat. That’s a rule. And maybe the Chicago Chamber Consortium hasn’t made an enormous splash–but at least we have stuck with that, and we still exist. You simply have to measure what you can do and be realistic about it.

PM: We’ve watched a number of organizations be unrealistic. But we’re seeing corporations and foundations cutting all arts funding.

ML: Making a career is taking a risk, that’s all there is to it. When you choose to become a musician, if you’re realistic at all, you know that it’s a risky business. There’s no security in it; it’s a labor of love. Those who survive are those who do it carefully and conscientiously and diligently.

BM: How long has the consortium been around?

ML: Six years.

BM: And what’s the average life of the member groups?

ML: Fifteen years for the Chicago String Ensemble, and the Chicago Ensemble is a little older. CUBE is three years old; the Exsultate Trio is five years old. The American Women Composers, Midwest, will celebrate their tenth anniversary next year. Rookwood is five years old. The Burgundian Consort has been around a long time–they’ve just joined us, and we’re delighted to have them. We’d been wanting to get some early music into the consortium. These groups have survived. And I’m sure we could name 25 that have disintegrated in the past five or six years.

It’s difficult to keep groups together. And it’s impossible to make a life as a chamber musician. They simply have to have other employment. They teach, they write, they play in orchestras, they sing in choruses, they do all sorts of other jobs in order to maintain this labor of love.

PM: There are usually one or two key performers, the heart and soul of the group. Maria is very much the center of her group–it’s her desire to do vocal music in a creative and unusual setting.

I think it’s worth noting that all the symphony orchestras in the United States encourage their orchestra members to make chamber music, because it makes them stronger players. That’s why the Orchestra Hall ballroom is available for free to the symphony musicians, to have a forum to do the labor of love. This is something that management’s discovered in the last 20 years. And their encouragement has created a climate for chamber music in which the little artists like us are able to build.

ML: Chamber music is in better shape now than it ever has been. We never had a Chamber Music America 20 years ago or 10 years ago. There was no such thing as the Chicago Chamber Consortium. Everybody was just doing their own little thing here and there. We all sense how much better we are as musicians from this kind of networking, this kind of music making. It’s a wonderful experience, very rewarding, very spiritually uplifting, and intellectually uplifting to us as individuals. It’s just maintaining it that’s the trick. The trick is being steady, trying to get the right kind of foundation and communication going with sponsorship, with business and corporate interests, to maintain what we’ve established. This city is ripe for more music.

BM: Is it possible to make a living as a chamber musician? The only full-time American groups I can think of are the Juilliard String Quartet and the Kronos Quartet–but is anybody else doing it?

ML: There’s the Vermeer Quartet–but all of them have teaching jobs. I think the answer is no. Even Yo-Yo Ma couldn’t make it playing chamber music.

PM: He plays concertos–that’s his bread and butter. People go to the symphony, where they hear concertos. The symphony uses big-name star types to sell tickets to the orchestra.

ML: It’s just a different market. It’s a different kind of music.

PM: The difference between Europe and here is that we operate on a star system. The Barnum & Bailey superstar–that sells. And that’s why we have trouble selling local music and local musicians. In Europe all it takes to sell a concert is Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. You put those three composers up, and you’ve got an instant audience, because people come not for the performers but for the music. Here you need the big-name star.

BM: Is that always true? At Ravinia the Tchaikovsky nights always sell out. They don’t care who’s conducting it or who’s playing it–they just want to know if there will be cannons. And I think you can sell Beethoven–especially Beethoven’s Ninth–almost regardless of your soloists.

PM: OK, but that’s not the norm. And the Ninth is a special piece, like the Messiah. At Orchestra Hall the soloists help to sell the season. You certainly can’t sell the local performer like that.

BM: So what’s the solution? More education? Make it more accessible? Get the word out?

PM: I go one step further. We’ve got to join the electronic age. There should be music videos of our local groups available in music stores.

ML: A number of our groups have recordings out, and they are available at Rose Records. This is one way to make yourself known, but it’s very expensive, and it’s very risky. It’s a major investment to make a CD. And I don’t think there’s any demand for a video.

But I think you have to look at yourself realistically too, which is to realize what you are as a musician and how you function–and then to do it. Not sit around and gripe about it, but just get out there and do it. Make chamber music happen. It takes effort. It takes work. No one is going to just invite you and provide you with aid. It just doesn’t happen on our level. We’re not big stars. But if you want to make chamber music, you have to accept the sacrifices.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Springer.