By Megan Westberg | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
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Consider this: the marriage analogy. You know the one, dropped into almost any conversation regarding the workings of a professional chamber ensemble. The string quartet as a wedded foursome—or a trio, quintet—all locked together in a perpetual tango that draws its perilous magic from staggering musical beauty wrought of constant negotiation and sometimes bitter compromise, mutual respect rising above nagging underlying disagreement. There is love there, certainly, but also an inescapable tension. Individual versus the collective. My tempo versus his. And perhaps it serves the music, coloring each note with subliminal glimmers of harmony and disharmony that reflect the complicated human experience. But frankly, rehearsals don’t always sound like a great deal of fun.
So, what if a chamber ensemble decided that instead of the constancy of artistic marriage, it would organize itself a bit more like, say, a house party? A big, glorious house party with a long and fabulous guest list. People could come and go. Add their social vivacity to the scene until it starts to flag, then disappear gracefully into the night. Build strong relationships but not to the exclusion of any others. What would that be like? Well, it sounds a lot like the approach taken by the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, founded in 2017 by violinist Elena Urioste and (her husband) pianist Tom Poster. This congenial ensemble, set for its first tour of the United States in December, is still generally administrated, appropriately enough, at their kitchen table.
“Our initial impulse to create a chamber collective was derived simply from the desire to play—or continue playing, I should say—music that we love with people that we love,” says Urioste in an email. And the list of musicians (“by no means exclusive,” according to the website) they love and have invited to the party is extensive. It is also a veritable Who’s Who of string royalty: Nicola Benedetti, Timothy Ridout, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Joseph Conyers, Chi-chi Nwanoku, Guy Johnston, Colin Carr… the list goes on and on, and then jumps into woodwinds, brass, piano, and voice. All told, 29 stellar string players out of 49 total musicians claim some involvement with the flexible ensemble. Which seems like a lot to manage, given that Urioste and Poster are both busy solo musicians besides.
“Tom and I had both reached a point in our respective careers where we felt it would be rewarding to have more agency over our musical lives—to build something from the ground up with our own values at the center,” says Urioste. And some of those values came from Urioste’s own experience with the chamber music scene in New York. In 2017, she was about to leave that city for a variety of reasons, but she did so at least “in part because of the sadness I felt at not having felt included in many of the preexisting chamber music societies, circles, and clubs in the States (certainly not for lack of trying!)… Feeling a bit like an outsider on the chamber music scene—which most freelance musicians will tell you is the place they feel most fulfilled—heightened my desire to create something of my own.”
But it was not only about creating a chamber music home for themselves that drove Urioste and Poster to create Kaleidoscope. It was also about creating something for their eclectic circle of musical friends. “I wanted to be someone who could potentially provide opportunities for others,” says Urioste, “and enable the musicians that I love and believe in to shine as brightly as possible, each in their own unique way.” It was about doing something together, which fits neatly into the ensemble’s mission to “inspire and educate audiences of all generations in the joys of chamber music, and ultimately to bring a bit of happiness and unity to our currently rather fractured-seeming world.”
“One of the characteristics of our Kaleidoscope roster that we’re most proud of,” Urioste says, “is that the people whose music making and onstage charisma we’re most drawn to also happen to encompass an incredibly wide range of backgrounds, nationalities, ages, and stories; and, without exception, whenever we all come together to make music, something incredibly special happens.”
A house party is only as good as its guest list. Gather together a group of the world’s brightest, most individually fascinating humans, and it won’t necessarily make for an evening of scintillating conversation and lasting interpersonal connection. Guests have to have something in common. And familiarity with the host is not enough. Whatever that something is must be intrinsic to the guests themselves. And sometimes, it’s hard to describe or even predict what that’s going to be. So how do Urioste and Poster decide to whom they will throw open their kaleidoscopic doors?
“What every member has in common is a palpable joy that shines through every note that they play,” says Urioste. “All of the musicians that we’ve gravitated toward are hugely charismatic and have a way of connecting with audiences so directly and genuinely.” But it isn’t just about music. There are, after all and rather famously, string ensembles that refuse to travel or even eat with each other on the road (I’m looking at you, Budapest Quartet). That is not what’s happening here. Kaleidoscope members (or “Kaleidos”) are meant to play well with each other both on and off the stage. In addition to their effervescent musical spirit, says Urioste, “They also love snacks. And having a good time! Personal chemistry is key.”
And it seems as though chemistry might be rather a harder thing to deliver than it sounds, especially musically. This is a group made up of all sorts of players, some of whom may be more accustomed than others to having their own way (what happens when everyone at the party wants to DJ?), and the cast rotates. Do they share anything beyond a certain musical spark that guides each configuration’s approach to sound or interpretation? “Our core cast of string players all share a love for shimmery, old-world sounds, and it’s something we don’t shy away from exploring where appropriate, particularly in Romantic and late-Romantic repertoire—in fact, this may contribute to why we’re so drawn to composers like Korngold, Beach, Schoenberg, and other early-20th-century music teetering on the brink of tonality,” says Urioste.
Rehearsals sound… serene. The prevailing scene can be described, according to Urioste, in terms of how little they talk. “At this point,” she says, “our core members know each other so well that one or two words can effectively shift the energy or direction of a phrase (‘Fluttery!’ ‘Nat King Cole!’) rather than endless pontificating. If we do get chatting, it’s often to make up a silly story in order to make sense of a seemingly aimless passage or movement.” Of course, not all rehearsals are composed of the usual suspects, and subgroups of the whole are arranged in consideration of schedules, location, and repertoire. But even so, says Urioste, it is rare that any new player doesn’t fit seamlessly into the collective fabric. “We have a fairly good sense of whose energies and sounds will meld most scrumptiously together.”
So what can (East Coast) American audiences expect of this group come its tour in December? One is an approach to programming as flexible as the ensemble itself. “In general, we’re open to any music that feels compelling, which is admittedly a rather wide set of criteria,” says Urioste. And there’s an inherent risk in that, as Kaleidoscope follows the sensibilities of its artistic heart rather than the sales-influenced wishes of some programmers. Though, if pressed to describe the group’s repertoire choices, Urioste points to a comfort zone in “high-octane, hyper-Romantic repertoire of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.” The group seems to specialize in mixing old and new, well known and neglected, traditionally celebrated and historically underrepresented. Its first concert in Baltimore, for example, will present Schubert’s Adagio and Rondo Concertante with George Walker’s Lyric for Strings and piano quintets by Amy Beach and Florence Price. Works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Mendelssohn, Jessie Montgomery, Dohnányi, Gabriella Smith, and Puccini will all cascade from stages graced by Kaleidoscope musicians throughout the tour as well.
The Piano Quintet by Florence Price, however, will appear on all programs and has been something of a signature for the group since it recorded the piece’s world premiere in 2020 on Chandos Records. “Florence Price’s voice draws from distinct influences (hymns from her time as a church organist, Dvořák, plantation dances, and Chicago pit bands, to name a few) but is indisputably her own—there is simply no one else that sounds like her,” says Urioste. “It’s not a piece that’s necessarily straightforward to play—we spent a lot of time ‘detangling’ the first movement in particular, which is longer than the other three movements (which are all more like character pieces—a spiritual, a raucous dance, and a tarantella) put together!”
Through its repertoire choices and general performing ethos, the Kaleidoscope Chamber Ensemble is hoping audiences have a great time. “Joy! Enthusiasm! Pieces that people haven’t heard a million times!” says Urioste of what she’s excited to share. “We hope that young people, people who love clapping between movements and tapping their feet to the beat, people who have never been to a classical concert before, people who have been to countless classical concerts before but want to hear something they maybe haven’t heard before and smile because our energy is contagious will come to share the music with us!”
They could’ve played a concoction of more traditional repertoire. Could’ve gone with Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann. But Kaleidoscope wants to escape those expectations and creatively sidestep “run-of-the-mill programming.” They have to play music they’re excited about, because it’s that excitement, that headlong enthusiasm, that ultimately defines this vibrant collective. Urioste says the most important thing she and Poster have learned through Kaleidoscope is that “what people want to see most, and ultimately love best, is when honesty sits at the center of whatever it is we do, has a clear pathway to flow outward, and can be shared by everyone in the room.” This December, Kaleidoscope would like to formally invite American audiences to their offsite chamber music house party. Don’t forget to RSVP.
Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective US Tour
December 3: Shriver Hall Concert Series, Baltimore
December 6: Longy School of Music, Cambridge, Massachusetts
December 9: Coastal Concerts, Lewes, Delaware
December 12: Kaufman Music Center, New York
December 13: Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia