Anne Midgette has a nice article in the NY Times this week on the current state of chamber music. All of her insights and reportage were worth reading, but there was one coincidence I found particularly interesting: the experts she interviewed all defined chamber music by the number of performers. Only Midgette’s definition – “a few people playing music in an intimate space [italics mine]“ – took the location into account. Of course, the experts had to accept their locations as given.

But location is really the crux of the matter. Any definition of “chamber music” has to start with the word “chamber,” which indicates a smaller room within a larger structure. Chamber music got its name because it was originally played in private homes for small gatherings. It was only in the late-nineteenth century that enormous auditoriums were built for thousands of listeners. The benefit, of course, was increased access, but the drawback was intimacy, which, as Midgette says in the article, is a defining feature of most successful chamber music experiences.

Midgette cites the problems of the Tuesday Musical Association, which presents chamber music in a 3000-seat hall in Akron, Ohio. She also quotes Wu Han, reporting that Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s subscriptions increased when Alice Tully Hall was closed for renovations. Those are two great examples of spaces that increased access at the expense of the music. I haven’t been to the Akron concert hall, but Tully has always felt hopelessly cavernous to me. And what is the point of giving access to thousands if you average 67% capacity?

Next March, we’re having the Emerson String Quartet play two concerts here in a cozy chamber hall that seats just under 300. Unfortunately, a lot of people who want to hear them won’t get in – there just aren’t enough seats for all the interested listeners. But I can guarantee that the ones who do get in will have an experience that’s tough to match. It certainly won’t be found in any of the enormous concert halls we’ve built in our rush to share our enthusiasms with as many people as possible.

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