Chamber groups face 21st-century challenges with unbridled passion
They are four superbly talented musicians. They form a world-class chamber ensemble that has racked up two Grammy nominations, regularly debuts works by top composers, and plays more than 100 concerts a year in cities from San Francisco to Seoul.

But ask Geoff Nuttall why the St. Lawrence String Quartet is so successful, and the ensemble’s first violinist doesn’t mince words.

“We’ve been incredibly lucky,” says the 48-year-old Nuttall. “The luck component can’t be overestimated.

“There are so many incredibly talented players and groups that just didn’t hit the sweet spot.”

Since Nuttall co-founded the group some 25 years ago, immense changes have come to the chamber music world.

New technology and profound changes in the record industry have leveled the playing field, allowing new groups to bypass gatekeepers and reach audiences directly.

Music schools offer far more support and training for chamber music. And the field boasts a financial stability that many symphonies can only envy.

“I think it’s the golden age,” Nuttall says. “I think there are more presenters in more varied places today than when we started.”

Yet competition has also intensified. As old barriers fall and orchestras become a less secure option, a growing number of talented players are embracing chamber music.

Luck may play a bigger role than ever. In the face of long odds, how can new chamber groups give themselves the best shot at success in this crowded and quickly changing field?

The challenges are immense, say established musicians—but so are the opportunities.

“I think the days of just being really good are over, whether you’re a standard string quartet or a new music group,” says cellist Nicholas Photinos, 40, a founding member of the group Eighth Blackbird. “There are simply too many groups out there that are really, really good.”

Musical excellence is still crucial, says Photinos, who cofounded his Chicago-based sextet in 1996. But business and marketing skills are more critical than they’ve ever been.

“You have to formulate reasons for people to come see your show over countless others, to be able to convince presenters that your concert is compelling and unique, so they can convince their audiences,” Photinos says. “You have to think about and develop your group like a product and a brand, because it is, and that does not diminish its artistic integrity.”

Key to that process, he says, is using an ever-changing media landscape—from email to Facebook, Twitter, and emerging social media channels—to find fans and engage them in your work.

“You can connect with your audiences in unprecedented ways,” Photinos says. “Of course, everyone else can do these things too, so it’s a constant challenge of being heard above the fray.”

To a veteran’s eye, the changes are astonishing.

“I think it’s quite a different world today,” says Paul Katz, co-founder of the ground-breaking Cleveland Quartet. “There is both more opportunity and less.”

Chamber musicians in the 21st century must embrace a wide range of responsibilities never even dreamed of in Katz’s day. “In my entire career, I never once wrote a grant application,” the cellist says with a laugh. “All of this stuff we didn’t deal with at all. It was all done for us.”

But when Katz, now in his 70s, thinks back four decades ago to the birth of the Cleveland Quartet—founded the same year as the famed Tokyo String Quartet, part of a wave of new ensembles—he says the seeds of change were evident even then.

“When we started, we were on the cusp of a new era,” he says. “The generation before wore the white tie and the tails, and there was this sense of the artists being kind of elitist. So management did everything.”

The new groups reacted strongly to those old notions.

“We took off the ties,” Katz says. “We started talking to the audience from the stage, which was revolutionary. We were aiming to reach people on a more human level.”

Groups also started to form personal relationships with presenters and fans, undermining the power of managers and helping to usher in today’s more democratic era.

“The way a career is made now is so different,” Katz says. “Before, if you weren’t lucky enough to get a New York manager and a major label, it was much more difficult.”

But at least one key to the Cleveland Quartet’s success is still critical to chamber ensembles today.

“People need to teach,” Katz says. “That’s the economic security that makes the whole thing possible. I don’t believe the economics of a chamber music career make it possible for any ensemble to exist solely on concerts. That was true in my day, and I think it’s true today.”

And Katz, who mentors several young chamber groups, says there’s also a downside to the new scene.

“We were lucky to enjoy a truly international concert career,” he notes. “We spent half our season in Japan and Europe and South America. That almost doesn’t exist anymore. The international career, the glamour career, is much rarer these days.”

One big reason: The declining power of record labels.

In previous decades, labels had the connections, the PR savvy, and the big bucks to help ensembles make a major splash in overseas markets.

“RCA Japan would promote the quartet, and when the quartet came to Japan, they promoted the tour,” Katz says. “Record labels made careers by promoting artists.”

But how does a young U.S. ensemble today become known to European audiences? “Your music is on the Internet,” Katz notes. “But hundreds of other groups are in the same position. It’s just not the same as having RCA setting up media interviews across Europe for you.”

The decline of record companies has forced ensembles to take matters into their own hands, says Ilmar Gavilán, 40, of the Harlem Quartet.

“It has had an amazing effect on classic music in general,” Gavilán says. “Even if you record with a certain label, they themselves don’t promote the CD like they used to. Now it’s pretty much the live concerts that promote the CD.”

Indeed, the Harlem Quartet self-financed and recorded its last two CDs—an increasingly common practice.

Albums today function more like business cards than money-makers. “You can send them to presenters and sell them at concerts, but they’re in no way a source of serious revenue for ensembles that I know now, especially young ones,” Gavilán says.

The good news, Gavilán says, is that presenters today are more open to young, high-quality quartets than they might have been 10 years ago. “But the flip side is that there are more high-quality quartets today then there were in the past,” he says.

This new landscape means that young ensembles must quickly settle into a specialized niche.

“If you’re going to be a modern music quartet like Kronos, make it clear,” Gavilán says. “If you’re going to be a jazz quartet like Turtle Island, make that clear. In our case, we made it clear that we want to do both at a high level. That’s ambitious, but it’s working for us.”

But even more important than specialization, Gavilán says, is training together as a quartet. “Don’t just go from being individual players of high caliber to being a quartet without going through that process,” he says.

Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider

Far more chamber music training programs are available today than when the Harlem Quartet made its public debut in 2006. “We finally did quartet training about three years into our career,” Gavilán says. “It really changed our perspective.”

The key benefit: Improved communications. “Before we started training, we were so passionate about our ideas that half our rehearsal time would be taken up by these intense philosophical discussions,” he explains with a chuckle.

Their new coach jumped into one of these heated debates. “She said, ‘Ilmar, just show him with the bow what you want. Just play it,’” Gavilán recalls. “Then the other person actually agreed with the way it sounded. We were just naming things differently and getting really passionate about it.”

In a few seconds, the coach cut off what could have been hours of discussion. “That was fantastic when we discovered that,” he says.  “It saved a lot of time from then on.”

Martin Beaver agrees that cohesion is a definite requirement for any chamber group. But, the Canadian violinist says, it’s also critical to project personality.

“This is not to say that every group must be flashy and extroverted in order to succeed, but there must be communication with the audience on many levels,” Beaver says.

Well known for the decade he spent as the Tokyo String Quartet’s first violinist, Beaver also has significant experience with launching new chamber groups.

In 2013 he joined forces with pianist Jon Kimura Parker and fellow Tokyo Quartet veteran Clive Greensmith to found the Montrose Trio.

Beaver has seen the commissioning of new works become increasingly important. New commissions contribute to the art form, of course—but they are also hugely helpful in helping ensembles stand out in a crowded field.

A 21st-century group, he says, needs such distinction—as well as skill, dedication, business savvy, and a fair bit of luck.

“The standard of playing in classical music in general and in chamber music in particular has never been higher,” Beaver says.

High-caliber skills are also developing outside the standard channels that prevailed in the past, according to violist Hank Dutt of the legendary Kronos Quartet. Dutt recently met a 13-year-old violinist in Austin, Texas, who had learned vibrato from Internet videos.

“I’ve been so fortunate in being able to hear lots of young musicians around the world, and I’ve been very impressed with the quality and also with their yearning to do contemporary music,” Dutt says.

But those new musicians still face a challenge that is intimately familiar to Dutt: finding a place to perform.

The Kronos Quartet may play sold-out shows around the world today, but Dutt vividly recalls the challenges of the ensemble’s first year in San Francisco in the late 1970s.

“We played on the street,” he says. “We played in Ghirardelli Square, at restaurants, at weddings, for anyone who would hire us. It takes time. You have to find an audience, people who are interested in what you’re doing.”

But that potential audience may be growing, according to violinist Colin Jacobsen of Brooklyn Rider.

The 36-year-old Jacobsen is cofounder of Brooklyn Rider, an innovative, high-energy string quartet made up of four classically trained musicians who often seem like rock stars onstage. They’ve played everywhere from Lincoln Center to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and South by Southwest.

“I look at the chamber-music scene as one of the bright spots in the current music world,” Jacobsen says. “It seems that there are more festivals and chamber-music groups and series than ever before. And part of that success is the personal aspect that allows for real human interaction between performers and audiences.”

Many of these performance opportunities have been created by organizers focused on connecting people socially through music. They attract audiences eager for experimentation.

“People seem hungry to be surprised, to not just have the same music presented in the same musty ways, which is allowing room for and even demanding innovation,” Jacobsen says.

When Brooklyn Rider launched some 10 years ago, the four musicians had already been active for some time in musical circles in New York City and beyond. That helped them find supportive performance spaces like Bargemusic, a landmark venue in an old coffee barge moored near the Brooklyn Bridge.

And when Brooklyn Rider couldn’t find a venue, the foursome rented space to put on shows and build an audience. It took a year or two of such self-management, Jacobsen says, before they attracted attention from Opus 3 Artists, a management firm that organized a tour for the ensemble.

“That’s one of the tough chicken-and-egg things when you’re starting out,” he says. “You think that if you only had management, then you would have dates. But most managements won’t even take someone on these days if they aren’t already out in the world doing something.” Even as Brooklyn Rider has enjoyed remarkable success, the musicians continue to take a do-it-yourself approach. In addition to making music, they tackle everything from communications and promotion to administrative tasks.

“There’s just so much that is necessary to happen to put on a single concert that sometimes I wish I could stick my head in the music cloud and float away,” says Jacobsen.

“But for an artist to do that these days feels like that they would be an ostrich sticking their head in the sand, rather than some cloud of pure aesthetic delight.”

Harlem Quartet

Harlem Quartet

Preparing musicians for that overwhelming challenge is now a major focus in conservatories and professional organizations.

Music schools are teaching students how to generate media coverage, build websites and write grant letters. Chamber Music America, the national chamber music association, offers workshops on website analytics and crowd funding campaigns for new creative projects.

But Andrew Bulbrook of the Calder Quartet worries that many students don’t quite understand how critical such skills have become.

During the recession, he was startled to see some schools cutting costs by trimming back on career-building classes.

“It’s fantastic to see this focus on career skills in addition to the playing,” Bulbrook says. “But you also have to wonder how much students realize it’s important. If it can be cut when times are tight, it may not be a deciding factor in where they chose to go to school.”

“I think it’s one of those things that when you’re younger it’s hard to realize how much you’re going to use it later,” he continues. “Long term, it really gives an ability to be independent and to try to steer your destiny as opposed to having it imposed upon you.”

But it’s also critical not to let such practical skills eclipse your ensemble’s development as artists.

“It goes back to, ‘Why you?’” says Bulbrook. “Why does someone want to listen to you or present you? Why is your work important, not just now but when society looks back in 50 years?”

That can sound daunting. As chamber music grows more crowded, some musicians may wonder whether it’s worth the struggle to succeed against long odds.

That’s the wrong question, says Geoff Nuttall. Anyone embarking on a chamber-music career should do it for one reason.

“You have to have this unbridled passion, this childlike enthusiasm for what you do, like a kid in a toy store,” Nuttall says. “You need to combine a dedication to the nuts and bolts with a willingness to let loose—to realize that you might not make that jump but you’re going to leap anyway.”

Would Nuttall start over again, knowing the odds were against a repeat of his remarkable career with the St. Lawrence String Quartet?

“I’m getting to play the music that I love,” he says. “I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

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