By Luke Fleming

When I took on the formation and artistic directorship of the Manhattan Chamber Players a year and a half ago, I knew I was heaping a huge amount of responsibility upon myself, and, to be honest, I didn’t know quite what to expect. Now, as MCP approaches the end of its first full season, I can reflect on a great many things that have come as surprises to me—both good and bad.  Anyone in a position like mine must be able to assess, reassess, and learn from his or her experiences, particularly the initial ones.  Ultimately, however, I was right in at least one of my initial predictions about MCP: It would be a monumentally gratifying endeavor, both in terms of the quality of the music-making and the response we have received from our first audiences.

Much of this has to do with the caliber of our artists, about whom I cannot say enough good things. Our flexible approach to programming, unorthodox ways of working with presenters, and even our very structure is far from ordinary, and this has created important issues in our first season with which I have had to deal. What follows are two of the most significant reflections from our first season.

My most frequently occurring issue is at the same time the most deceptively simple: How do I successfully communicate to presenters what MCP is?  Almost anyone who looks at our headshots automatically assumes we are a chamber orchestra, and rightly so. But we’re actually a chamber-music collective. For some presenters, this is just too much to have to think about, and I have learned to accept that. It’s a lot easier to hire a string quartet or piano trio and just tell them, “Here are the pieces you can’t play because we had them on a recent season,” and let them take care of the rest.

The best way I have found to deal with this is to take on each presenter with a clean slate of expectations. Some will want a firm hand in creating a program for their series; others will want you to take care of everything for them, giving you carte blanche with respect to programming. Both approaches (and everything in between) have their value.

That brings me to perhaps the most difficult hurdle, a question that will sound familiar to virtually all performers: How do I convince presenters to hire us?  Often, presenters thoughts have been: “Why should I hire MCP instead of a string quartet? I mean, you’re a pickup ad hoc group and string quartets rehearse together every day.”

We are indeed an ad hoc group, but there are some common misconceptions in many minds. I spent a large chunk of my own career playing in a professional string quartet. As a result, many of my colleagues are current or former quartet players. From this experience, I can tell you that no two string quartets are the same. Some rehearse every day; some rehearse three times a week; some rehearse all their rep in the summer before the season starts. Some change personnel all the time; some still have their original members. And while I will be the first to say that there are certain unified musical things that one can do only with a group of players who work together as intimately and as often as a professional string quartet, any quartet player will also tell you that quartet life takes its toll. Some of the greatest performances of the chamber repertoire I have ever heard have come from a professional pre-formed, fixed membership ensemble like a string quartet or piano trio; but some of the worst have, too.  And the same can be said of ad hoc groups of exceptional players.

My point is not that one approach is better than another, but that there is no fail-safe recipe or perfect format guaranteeing a great performance. In terms of convincing presenters of this, I have relied on the fact that most of our artists are current or former string-quartet or piano-trio players and in many cases have been performing together long before they joined their respective groups. These artists thrive on the joy and spontaneity that we inevitably have when we come together in any number of different chamber combinations. That is truly the heart of what makes MCP work as well as it has.

The presenters that have taken a chance on us—and I say this because in a presenter’s mind, that is exactly what hiring a new group is—have responded ecstatically to our performances, and have subsequently booked us for their next seasons, simply asking for a different combination of players. This was a positive development that I did not predict: In a string quartet or piano trio, even if a presenter absolutely adores you, he or she is not likely to hire you back season after season—you will often have to wait at least two or three seasons to be invited again. This is for the sake of variety, and it is an understandable argument. But with MCP, the presenters we have worked with have discovered that this variety is built into our structure.

For example, this past season a presenter hired us to perform in a group of five players that included a piano quartet, a string quartet, and a piano quintet; next season we will return, again with five performers, to play a program of a flute quartet, a flute and viola duo, and a string quartet.

In the end, what has held MCP together and to such a high standard in its first season has been a deep respect and love for the vast expanse of the chamber-music repertoire we are playing and the people with whom we are performing it. We pride ourselves on being an ensemble that is “all about the music.” It is my hope that this attitude shows in our performances, and the result speaks for itself. I can say without hesitation that I have never been more gratified professionally.

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