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On a Smaller Scale: Chamber Ensembles with an Oberlin Accent (continued)

Making It New

When Oberlin chamber musicians discuss their influences, Timothy Weiss’ name often comes up. For many, participation in the Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME), headed by Weiss, was a galvanizing experience that gave them insight into contemporary music and new understanding and confidence in their own playing. Gindele, who took CME every semester, says, “I liked the music and I liked him. He had faith in his musicians.”


eighth blackbird (clockwise from top left): Nicholas Photinos ’96 (cello), Michael J. Maccaferri ’95 (clarinet), Matthew Albert ’96 (violin), Matthew Duvall ’95 (percussion), Lisa Kaplan ’96 (piano), and Molly Barth ’97 (flute).

Weiss, who is associate professor of conducting and Gardner professor of music, actually put eighth blackbird together. “I had never played anything more contemporary than Copland before coming to Oberlin,” says Lisa Kaplan. “Tim Weiss arrived at the Conservatory the same year I did, and he had an enthusiasm and talent for contemporary music that I had never seen before. Playing in the CME was—and still is—very prestigious.”

One day Kaplan overheard Weiss complaining in the hall that he couldn’t find any pianists, and she volunteered her services. One of the groups he put her in was a sextet, which was working on a piece for 1997 graduate Molly Barth’s flute recital. “We began rehearsals at 8 a.m., which is insanely early for college students, and he was coaching and conducting us. When he couldn’t make it for the last rehearsal, we did it without him. It was a huge revelation, and we decided to do the performance without him.” Kaplan says that Weiss was thrilled to see the group take off on its own. The sextet members named their group eighth blackbird, and a decade later, they remain close to their mentor. In 2003, they returned to Oberlin to give a workshop and perform their first concerto, by David Schober ’96, with Weiss.

The emphasis on, and status accorded to, contemporary music makes Oberlin unusual, Kaplan says. “It’s a huge part of the reason that we exist.” None of eighth blackbird’s
members, she adds, would have predicted this career for themselves. The group rarely plays anything more than 8 or 10 years old, and regularly commissions new work from a wide variety of composers. Its third recording for Cedille, released in April 2005 and titled Fred, features the music of Frederick Rzewski.

Exposure to contemporary music at Oberlin was also a pivotal experience for Blair McMillen, who now plays a great deal of it, particularly with Da Capo. “During my junior year, I was asked if I wanted to play with the CME. At the first rehearsal I banged out a difficult polyrhythm and realized that I had a knack for it. Once I discovered this affinity with new music, there was plenty of opportunity to pursue it. I began reading through scores and listening to recordings all of the time, and I performed many Oberlin student pieces.”

Toyin Spellman says that she volunteered to play pieces by five or six different student composers every year and went along to composer conventions any time she was asked. The relationships formed between players and composers endure beyond the conservatory: some of eighth blackbird’s signature pieces were written by David Schober, an Oberlin roommate of Matt Albert ’96, who plays violin and viola in the group.

Dean Stull says that the CME stresses both contemporary music and chamber music skills. “Tim really encourages students to play as chamber musicians,” he says. “Often, he won’t conduct, and the students begin to absorb the piece into themselves as musicians, taking leadership. That gives them courage, and they get over the fear of new music. It inspires them to take on contemporary music themselves.” Indeed, most of the Oberlin chamber players continue to commission and play new music, even those in traditional ensembles. The Pacifica Quartet and eighth blackbird, both ensembles in residence at the University of Chicago, mix and match their members for an all-contemporary music series there, directed by composer Shulamit Ran.

Kaplan sees the emphasis on contemporary music as a part of an overall atmosphere at Oberlin that encourages exploration. “We were always encouraged to play with other people, to do other things.” Three of the sextet’s members were double-degree students: Kaplan in art history, Matt Albert in English, and percussionist Matthew Duvall ’95 in classics. “I wanted to get a good liberal arts education,” Kaplan says. “It will only help me in my life as a musician.”

Liz Freivogel, who took her double degree in English, says, “I liked having that balance. You spend so much time by yourself in a practice room, and you feel you’re judging yourself all the time. My work in the College taught me to have a little more perspective.”

The Musician as Entrepreneur

Today’s professional world appears to be newly receptive to the entrepreneurship of chamber music, the sort that is encouraged by the questing and pioneering culture of Oberlin. “Professional music is headed toward smaller ensembles that are inventive and good at managing and promoting themselves,” says Stull. “Now, to make a living, it’s not essential to get into an orchestra.”

Faculty and ensemble-in-residence positions provide a home base, salary, health insurance, and the freedom to tour. The Fry Street Quartet, for example, built its sound and reputation by spending three years in a rural residency in Hickory, North Carolina. Ensembles with the determination to survive the grueling and often lean shakedown years may ultimately find themselves engaged in the most satisfying of careers.


Groups with an original musical image can be extremely successful. Eighth blackbird, whose only real model is the Kronos Quartet, has developed a solid, sexy career playing contemporary music, often in choreographed performances without scores. The Imani Winds also has a nontraditional profile. Having built its reputation through outreach concerts initially facilitated through the Concert Artists Guild, the ensemble today plays an astonishing 240 dates a year. In 2004 they received a CMA/ASCAP award for adventurous programming. This year the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), an all-alumni group founded by flutist Claire Chase ’01 and composer Huang Ruo ’00, was similarly honored.

Oberlin helps musicians learn the essential skills that make chamber ensembles successful. “Oberlin teaches you to think outside the box,” Freivogel says. “I notice that Oberlin musicians often do things that are unconventional, which is good in the chamber music world.”

Stull comments that Oberlin musicians are often very good at the teaching and outreach activities that now make up a considerable part of a successful chamber group’s arsenal. “When they are not playing instruments, they comport themselves effectively,” he says. “They have a real knowledge of how to communicate; they are thoughtful, they speak well, and they are engaged at a level that you want to see in a teaching environment.”

McMillen says he learned a great deal about the finer points of playing in a chamber ensemble at Oberlin. “People are all there because they love music and want to play with friends, but I realized that putting music together with others is not always a simple process, no matter how well everyone gets along. I believe it was Yo-Yo Ma who once said that a good chamber musician is always willing to try someone else’s idea no matter how far off base they might think it is. I believe I learned a certain sense of selflessness in chamber music while at Oberlin. I was fortunate that my experience there dealt as much with the process of learning music as it did with performing, and that has served me very well since.”

Growth Factors

The Miró Quartet: Daniel Ching ’95 (violin) is at left; Joshua Gindele ’97 (cello) is at right.

For Fulkerson, a fundamental element in the recent growth in chamber music has to do with sheer technical proficiency. “Violin playing is better now than it ever has been, he says. “After 20 years of Suzuki, the base of the pyramid is very large. String quartets now play very well. When I worked with the members of the Miró, they were four really high-level instrumentalists, at the cutting edge of technical development. Thanks to their technical skill, they were able to compete at every level.” Gindele quotes a Fulkerson dictum: “Greg said that to play chamber music, you have to play it at a higher level than you do playing concertos. You have to play as well as humanly possible. The faculty fostered this.”

Like all conservatories, Oberlin is determined that its students reach the highest possible level of technical proficiency. Bassoonist Monica Ellis of Imani Winds says Oberlin was all about focus. “In high school, I was doing many things, like playing piano and saxophone. In college, I knew I wanted to study the bassoon, and Associate Professor of Bassoon George Sakakeeny was an outstanding teacher for me. He didn’t hold back; he’d lay it out for me when I wasn’t cutting it, or when I was resting on my laurels. Oberlin prepared me to be a great bassoon player.” The College, she adds, “gave me the tools to be a well-rounded person.”

Recognizing the growing potential of chamber music as a career, Stull says that Oberlin plans to further develop its chamber music program. “We want to enhance the curriculum without disabling or derailing those things that have generated these ensembles,” he says. He is considering “more formalized” chamber music experiences for freshmen and additional advanced chamber music courses for upper classmen. The Conservatory has already added a section of an extremely popular course taught by Professor of Music Theory Brian Alegant that combines analysis and performance. It attracts many students, including chamber music groups, and is the model for proposed chamber music curricular development.

Stull does not, however, think that the entrepreneurial aspect of chamber music is something that can be taught as a course. “I think our first focus is training musicians at the highest level, and helping them to develop a vision of their own music-making. With that, we give them a good dose of liberal education. Reading Shakespeare and philosophy and developing serious intellectual skills encourages students to act on their own creative impulses and teaches them how to turn inspiration into occupation.

“It’s not an exact science,” he adds, “and you need a complex array of resources to do it. Oberlin is organized to do this effectively. We catch students at the right age, 18 to 22, when they are coming to understand themselves. They can look at the environment to see what groups are successful and how that fits with what they want to do. With the intellectual skills they will acquire here, they’ll have the capacity to adapt and be successful in whatever context they find themselves.”

Heidi Waleson is a New York-based writer and music critic and writes about opera for the Wall Street Journal. Her article on Oberlin-trained opera singers appeared in the 2004 issue of this magazine.

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