A festival is born: Missouri Chamber Music Festival
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2011 - The first Missouri Chamber Music Festival concert series takes place this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 23-25, with three evening performances at the First Congregational Church of Webster Groves.
But the weekend before the performances begin the organizer are preoccupied with a part of the Festival that doesn't involve formal concerts and ticket fees. Clarinetist Scott Andrews and pianist Nina Ferrigno - the husband-and-wife team that conceived and produced the event -- are working with 12 amateur musicians.
In this, they are joined by such other professional musicians as bassoonist Felicia Foland, violinist Angie Smart (both members, as is Andrews, of the St. Louis Symphony), pianist and noted music educator Vera Parkin and Boston-based cellist Jennifer Lucht.
It's part of the Chamber Music Festival called the Pro-Am Intensive, in which each of the professional musicians works with a group of the amateurs on a particular piece of chamber music. The selections for this initial Pro-Am feature Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus 59, No. 1; Saint Saens Tarantella Op. 6; Khachaturian's Trio and Nielsen's Woodwind Quartet Op. 43.
When the musicians met last Thursday for a "meet and greet" before the practice sessions started, there was clearly a mix of excitement, anticipation and a little quiet nervousness on the part of some of the amateur players.
But now, after four practice sessions that spanned late Friday afternoon through Sunday morning, everyone has gathered in a large room in the basement of Webster University's Community Music School for lunch and performances of sections of each of the four pieces the groups have been working on so diligently. The nervousness has been replaced by a sense of achievement and confidence on the part of the amateur musicians - and unstinting praise for their work on the part of their professional instructors.
"It's really been a great experience," says Foland after her final practice session with the woodwind players working on the Nielsen Quintet. "Everyone has been committed to working hard, and they are really looking forward to playing for everyone after lunch. It's really been a rewarding experience for me."
One of Foland's amateur musicians, clarinetist Mike Montague, is equally complimentary about what he and the other musicians have learned from Foland over the past three days.
"It's been wonderful working with the others in our quintet," he says. "And it's really been interesting learning from a professional such as Felicia - especially in terms of getting off the written score and discovering non-verbal techniques that can help make the music become more vital and alive."
Those sentiments were echoed over the next hour by the other amateur and professional musicians who participated in the inaugural Pro-Am Intensive. And there was a palpable sense of community and support among all the musicians as each group took a turn playing music they had worked on.
"One of our goals in adding the Pro-Am element to the festival was to help build a stronger sense of community among chamber music musicians in the St. Louis area - no matter what their level of musicianship," Andrews says after goodbyes are exchanged among the participants.
"This has been a very positive experience," Montague says. "It's so important to have events like this that can provide a way for amateur adult chamber music players to stay involved and playing and keep this music alive in the community."
An Idea Takes Root
Interviewed at their home in Webster Groves last Saturday, Andrews and Ferrigno said that building the chamber music community in the St. Louis area was one of the primary goals in organizing the first annual Missouri Chamber Music Festival.
Andrews has played with the St. Louis Symphony since moving here from Boston in 2005. In addition to his work for the previous 11 years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andrews has considerable experience as a chamber music performer - with groups including trios, quartets and chamber orchestras.
"I'm an orchestral player, but I love small ensembles - and Nina does as well," explains Andrews. "Nina has been involved with chamber music for some time as well, and together we had been thinking about a festival for awhile, but the concept really began to move forward about a year ago."
"I'm in a chamber music group called the Calyx Trio," Ferrigno says. "We first got together when I was in Boston, and have played at the Sheldon. I'm also involved with the Chamber Project of St. Louis, so like Scott, I really crave the collaboration that's such a special part of chamber music. And we were both hungry for more, so we decided we wanted to create more opportunities to experience that."
Their effort to start a chamber music festival really began in earnest last June, when they incorporated and began organizing fund-raising concerts and applying for grants. The response from both funding organizations and individuals has been gratifying according to Andrews.
"We were really grateful to receive funding from the Whitaker Foundation, the Regional Arts Council and the Missouri Arts Council," he says. "But the really inspiring part was the support we received from individuals. That kind of personal support - given by people one-on-one - really made us see the potential impact that a festival could have in building the chamber music community here in St. Louis."
Musicians Sign Up
With enough support to not only put together an initial event in 2011, but also plan ahead for a follow-up event on an annual basis, Andrews and Ferrigno began to put together the elements they wanted to see in the festival.
"When we knew that the festival would happen, we started thinking about some musicians we wanted to be part of it," says Andrews. And there were certainly several names that immediately came to mind, and we knew we wanted to have involved. Violist Amadi Azikiwe, who is a tremendous musician, was high on our list. And it was a great opportunity to bring the Calyx Piano Trio together again - especially since the pianist was already here!"
"We also wanted to take advantage of some of the great musicians here in St. Louis - and those here for Opera Theater," Ferrigno says. "Melissa Brooks is a principal cellist with SLSO, and vocalist Ashley Emerson is here singing the role of Marie in "Daughter of the Regiment" at Opera Theater. So it was natural to try and get her on the program."
In addition, both Andrews and Ferrigno wanted to make sure that the first festival - and all subsequent ones - included a composer-in-residence. Their choice for the debut season is Grammy-nominated composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel. In addition to including performances of Bermel compositions "Mulatash Stomp" and "Language Instruction" in the Thursday and Saturday concerts respectively, Bermel will also discuss the music in pre-concert conversations.
"It was an easy decision to invite Derek for the first festival," explains Andrews. "Not only is he a prolific composer whose music is critically acclaimed and who has worked with everyone from John Adams to Wynton Marsalis. In addition, he's also a fine clarinetist. So he can talk about the music from both the perspective of a composer and a musicians."
A Look Ahead
As they work to make the first Missouri Chamber Music Festival the best it can be, both musicians are already hoping to eventually expand the reach of the Festival in coming years.
"I'm not sure if we'll be able to do it in 2012, but we eventually would like to make this a two-week event," says Andrews. "And next year and for subsequent Festivals, we want the composer-in residence to write an original composition that will be debuted at that year's event."
"We have so many hopes for this festival," Ferrigno says. "It's been so motivating to actually see the first one come together. But most of all, we feel a real sense of responsibility now that the Festival is happening. We want to make sure it lives up to the goals we have set - and especially the support we have received from those who love chamber music - to make this an inspiring and artistically successful annual event."
Additional Chamber Music Series
There are several venues and concert that feature chamber music in the St. Louis area. Here are several of them.
The Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists aims "to enrich the cultural life of the Saint Louis community through enhanced cultural programming which will expose new audiences to classical music, promote emerging artists, and infuse the experience with Jewish thematic content." June 26-July 3. For more information go to http://geshermusicfestival.org/Home.html
Chamber Project St. Louis presents a full season of chamber music at various venues in the area. For more information go to www.chambermusicproject.stl.
The Chamber Music Society of St. Louis presents a season series based at the Kranzberg Arts Center. For more info, go to www.chambermusicstl.com.
The Sheldon Concert Hall presents the Sheldon Classics series with three concerts on Jan. 25, March 14 and April 25, 2012. For more information, go to www.thesheldon.org.
The Crescendo Concert series in St. Charles includes chamber music in its series. For more information go to www. crescendoconcerts.org.
The Innsbruck Institute Summer Music Academy presents an annual summer chamber music concert series. For more information, go to www.innsbrookinstitute.org.
The New Jewish Theatre's Salon Music presents chamber music concerts in the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theater. For information, go to www.newjewishtheatre.org/pages/new_jewish_theatres_salon_music_series
The St. Louis Symphony in conjunction with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts presents an annual New Music Series. For more information, go to www.pulitzerarts.org.
The Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis presents chamber music concerts by the Arianna String Quartet. For more information, go to www.touhill.org.
Terry Perkins is a freelance writers who has long covered the St. Louis music scene.