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New group goes classical in a different setting

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2009 - Some performers spend a lifetime trying to divine what audiences want. For Marc Gordon, it took only one night and a brief experiment.

Last month, Gordon, president and artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis, held the group's first concert at the Kranzberg Art Center, where cabaret performances are more frequent than classical. But, Gordon wondered, would listeners be receptive to a "cabaret-style" atmosphere for his group? To find out, he deployed tables around the room as well as traditional row seating near the front. Then he watched as 86 people filed in to attend the group's inaugural concert.

Exactly four of them sat in front of the stage.

"It was a real answer to our question," said Gordon, a 33-year veteran of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. "Now we stay exclusively with the cabaret-style seating. People seem to enjoy the informality of that setup."

In many ways, the innovative seating experiment exemplifies the unconventional nature of an organization created to showcase a classical art form in an unexpected environment.

In July, Gordon, 61, founded the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis. And Gordon very much sees himself as a man filling a need. In the past, various outlets across town have offered traditional chamber music series, including the SLSO.

But these days, the pickings for the traditional chamber classics are increasingly sparse. Gordon said that while various chamber music groups perform in the area, St. Louis has always lacked a chamber music society to stage concerts on a regular basis -- similar to those seen in major metropolitan areas such as Phoenix or Philadelphia. Even smaller localities like Buffalo or Sacramento list similar groups.

"Somebody has to promote this music and the Chamber Music Society is filling the gap," said Mark Mittleman, a business litigation attorney who practices in the Clayton area.

Mittleman now sits on the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis (CMSSL) board and hopes the organization will carve out a niche bringing a sustained programming presence in traditional chamber music to a city that needs it. He said while it's not hard to start cultural efforts in town, it can be a challenge to get them noticed.

"Opera Theatre did it," he said. "It took the Rep many years and they never had an overwhelming breakthrough. They just stuck around long enough until people realized that they were a significant cultural institution in town. You don't have a lot of rocket success."

Gordon certainly isn't in any hurry as he slowly builds momentum for his effort. The November event won't be followed up until April when CMSSL plans to present a concert focusing on Brahms' Horn Trio and Mozart's String Quartet No. 14.

By the 2010-11 season, he wants to expand to four concerts, a change he hopes will be brought about by popular demand but also by the intimate confines of the Kranzberg Art Center where the group holds events. Smaller than more well-known facilities like the Sheldon Concert Hall just half a block away, the venue seats about 80-100 people. meaning that an increase in demand will necessitate a heavier schedule -- perhaps even repeat performances.

Of course, the limitations of Kranzberg are not a bad thing. In fact, it's part of the idea.

"What drove that concept," Gordon said, "is that we wanted to present this repertoire so that it would be interesting and attractive to seasoned chamber music concertgoers but also to attract new people who may be a fan of the symphony or maybe even not but would be intrigued by going to hear classical music in a small and informal setting."

In short, Gordon hopes to fuse a traditional sound with a modern venue.

Still, for Gordon, it's all about the music.

"We love the opportunity to do chamber music because it makes us better players," he said. "It also gives us an opportunity to explore a repertoire that we played in school but don't get much chance to play in a major symphony orchestra."

The layout allows for patrons to enjoy beverages and relax at tables rather than be stacked in a standard concert hall seating paradigm.

"I liked the intimate setting," said Dawn Nemanick, an attendee of the invitation-only inaugural event.Nemanick, 42, of St. Louis, said both the cabaret setup and the explanations in between pieces helped to make the music more accessible to the general public.

"There were far fewer audience members," she said, "which really made you feel like you were a part of it rather than being more removed from the stage. You were close to the musicians making it very friendly."

Of course for Nemanick, there was one side benefit to being so close to the musicians. Or at least there was one for her 7-year-old daughter Sarah, an aspiring violin student.

"She got the opportunity to meet David Halen," Nemanick said. "She was really star-struck and that made it even more special."

Halen, concertmaster of the SLSO, is just one of many big names to come from the symphony. That's no coincidence. While the group has no association with the SLSO, it draws heavily on its talent pool. Gordon, an English horn player, has played not just with SLSO but for symphonies in San Diego and his hometown of Chicago. In 2003, he and several others started AAM Recordings, which put out a CD of Halen's music.

"I really enjoy working with him so when he came to me with the genesis of an idea, I felt the more cultural activity in St. Louis, the better," said Halen, who plays violin for Gordon's group. "I want to support those kinds of endeavors wherever possible."

Halen will also be on the billing for the upcoming April event. Still, Gordon, who plays oboe for CMSSL, said his outfit has no "regular" players. Rather, the group is reshuffled each time, tailored to the needs of the pieces being played.

"The structure is such that the musicians who are playing are not necessarily members of the organization," Gordon said. "It's more like subcontracting out. We'll try to use a variety of musicians. The goal is to present music of the highest quality performed by nationally recognized artists."

In fact, the only other permanent member of CMSSL is Gordon's co-founder and wife Susan, who is the group's chief financial officer -- as well as its viola player. A 22-year veteran of the SLSO, she is quick to stress that the organization is filling a hole in the community, not competing with anyone.

"At least, we're not trying to," she laughs. "If we are, we're sorry."

At the moment, Susan's big focus is obtaining the proper IRS classification, a key to the organization's future endeavors. Until this point, the group's expenses have been coming out of the Gordons' own pocket. There was no charge on the November event. Ticket prices for April are planned at $32.

"Right now, we're waiting to hear if we're going to get our nonprofit status from the feds," she said. "That is very exciting to us because as soon as we do, we'll be able to put on far more concerts as well as educational programs and learning experiences for anyone who wants to know more about chamber music."

Marc said that those learning programs could include everything from partnerships with school music programs to master classes that could pair students up with professional musicians.

But that's still in the future. For right now, the Gordons have more than enough on their plate, the audience seems satisfied and the performers are as happy as their listeners. That, says Marc, is a credit to the style of music.

"With chamber music, you are playing with fewer people and everything is more transparent so you can hear everyone," he said. "Also, you have control. There's no conductor telling you his vision of a particular composition. It's a collaborative effect. Everything is magnified because there are fewer people playing."

Among those people will be Roger Kaza. Kaza didn't play in November but he is looking forward to experiencing the Kranzberg for the first time in April. He said there is "quite a void" of this genre in St. Louis.

"We used to do a lot of chamber music," said Kaza, who is also principal horn at the SLSO. "There was a series at the Sheldon and another at the Ethical Society, so I'm really excited about this latest incarnation."

Mark Sparks, principal flute for the SLSO and a participant in the November concert, agrees.

"Any chamber music that's happening in St. Louis is good," he said. "If we can get a new high-quality series going like Marc is trying to do, I think that's great for St. Louis."

Perhaps. But can it be done? Sparks isn't betting against his friend.

"Marc is a very smart, creative guy," he said. "I think if anyone can do it he can."

For more information on the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis or the upcoming April 27 event, visit www.chambermusicstl.org

First concert


David Halen - St. Louis Symphony Concertmaster
Susan Gordon - St. Louis Symphony violist
Bjorn Ranheim - St. Louis Symphony cellist
Carolyn White - St. Louis Symphony associate principal bass
Mark Sparks - St. Louis Symphony principal flute
Marc Gordon - Former St. Louis Symphony English horn and oboist


Rossini - Sonata #2 for Violin, Viola, Cello & Bass (arr. White)
Stamitz - Quartet in Eb OP. 8 #4 for oboe, Violin, Viola & Cello
Mozart - Quartet #1 in D Major for Flute, Violin, Viola & Cello K. 285

second concert

What: "Welcome Spring"

Program to include:

Mozart - String Quartet No 14, K 387 "Spring"

Brahms - Trio for Violin, Horn & Piano, Op 40

David Baugher is a freelance writer. 

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