Chamber Project St. Louis grows from upstart to institution
Chamber Project St. Louis began as the solution to a simple problem.
A group of musicians were hanging out one night when one of them mentioned she’d love the chance to play Mozart’s Quintet in G minor, but the piece is rarely programmed because it calls for unusual instrumentation. Then the musicians realized they had all the necessary personnel right there in the room.
A new classical music organization was born.
Chamber Project St. Louis launches its 15th season Thursday at the Chapel in University City, with a concert featuring Latin American composers.
Its founders sought to scribble over some of the inherited rules about how chamber music concerts are supposed to operate.
“There are elements of that concert format that are useful and good and helpful,” said clarinetist and co-founder Dana Hotle, the organization’s executive director. “But there’s elements that I think feel a little bit like you have to go through some sort of initiation process to understand them. We wanted to get rid of as much of that as we could.”
The organization seeks out venues where people already gather for reasons other than music — libraries, the World Chess Hall of Fame, the Schlafly Tap Room. The practice makes for more work than setting up shop in the same concert hall every time but reflects a commitment to the social aspect of chamber music, which developed in the 18th century out of gatherings at European aristocrats’ homes.
Some unconventional venues work out better than others. The founders learned the hard way that the need for a quiet space is one piece of the traditional concert model that still holds up. When they tried performing in a bar without the benefit of a closed-off room, the audience had trouble hearing the music.
“Having a place where you can come early and hang out, or stay a little bit after, in a place that’s designed for people to socialize, is really important,” Hotle said. “Sometimes our intermissions are as long as the bar line takes to clear out. There’s no bell that gets rung that sends you back to your seat at our concerts.”
Fellow founders Jen Gartley, who plays flute, and violist Laura Reycraft serve as the organization’s artistic directors. Original member Adrianna Honnold has since moved on to other pursuits.
The core trio brings in rotating guest musicians for each program. Most are women, and each concert this season features at least one composition by a female composer. Almost all of the musicians performing in the 15th season are women.
“Women have been egregiously left out of European classical music,” Gartley said before getting to work in a rehearsal studio at Washington University’s 560 Center. “I went to music school for a long time, and I didn’t really get to play music by women or by people of color. There’s so many composers out there that were left out of my own musical tradition that I am so excited to explore now.”
A 2021 study found that women composed only 5% of the pieces that the world’s top 100 orchestras performed that season. Only a bit more than 1% of compositions were written by Black or Asian women; Black and Asian men contributed less than 2.5% of the pieces these orchestras performed. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was not included in the study.
“The art form has a long history, as many do, of excluding everybody but white men,” Hotle said. “From the beginning our idea was that we want our concerts to reflect where we live, which of course includes women and people of color and all kinds of different people.”
Hotle, Gartley and Reycraft are white women; their broader circle of collaborators has more ethnic diversity. So too does the roster of composers whose work they perform.
The season-opening program includes work by Teresa Carreño, a Venezuelan musician known best as a virtuoso pianist, and pieces by two living composers that draw overt connections with Latin American culture.
Efraín Amaya’s “El Sentir de Maria Lionza” links a historical legend from his native Venezuela with the political unrest roiling the nation today. “Submerged,” by Uruguayan-born composer Miguel del Águila, is a musical adaptation of a work by Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni.
Águila calls in his score for musicians to subvert their instruments’ typical purposes within European-sourced chamber music. So Reycraft, the violist, plays her instrument with a guitar pick to suggest the sound of the charango, an Andean lute. Harpist Megan Stout strikes the body of her instrument like a drum, in a way that’s similar to Paraguayan harp technique. And the prominent flute lines that Gartley plays sound at times like a transcription of birdsong.
The composers on the opening program are not as well known in the U.S. as many from Europe and Russia, though Chamber Project St. Louis does perform some work by composers with names like Ravel, Beethoven and Mozart.
But the organization has grown a loyal audience that is willing to hear something new. The upstart ensemble founded in a casual conversation among friends has grown into an institution.
“It just allows us to take even more risks in terms of programming and performance and venues and all of that,” Reycraft said. “So I feel like we have a little freedom to try new things, and that’s exciting.”
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