Celebrating 15 Years of Delightful Intensity

Performers at ChamberFest 2013 playing John Zorn's Cat O'Nine Tales, which will be performed this year on January 16.

 (Photo by Richard Termine)

“They were huddled in a circle, the five of them, heads down and arms around each other. As I approached, they suddenly high-fived each other and turned away, enormous grins on their faces. Who were they? A new sports team at Juilliard? No, just the gregarious and hard-working students who were about to go onstage for their performance of the 'Trout' Quintet in Juilliard’s first-ever chamber music festival.”


With these words, Bärli Nugent (BM ’76, MM ’77, flute), now the assistant dean and director of chamber music, began her 2002 Juilliard Journal description of the first ChamberFest. This weeklong salute to chamber music has since become a Juilliard institution that, as fourth-year harpist Margaret Davis wrote in The Journal two years ago, is “a fabulous encapsulation of what Juilliard can offer—high-level performance, the ability to program and perform sometimes-obscure works, and interdisciplinary collaboration.”

The students who participate in the festival return a week early from winter recess for a week of intensive coaching on pieces they’ve chosen to study; the following week they perform the works in public concerts. This year, 19 groups of 92 students working with 19 coaches will perform eight concerts over the course of six days. In honor of the 15th edition, which begins January 11, we rounded up some commentary about it made by people who have participated over the last 15 years.

Top 10 most frequently performed works in ChamberFest 2002-15:

  • MESSAIEN Quartet for the End of Time: 8

  • SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Trio in E Minor: 7

  • BRAHMS Piano Quintet in F Minor: 6

  • BRAHMS Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor: 6

  • SCHUBERT “Trout” Quintet: 6

  • BRAHMS Horn Trio: 5

  • DVOŘÁK Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major: 5

  • MENDELSSOHN Piano Trio in D Minor: 5

  • RAVEL Piano Trio: 5

  • SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Quintet in G Minor: 5


I started cello originally to be able to play chamber music with my musical parents, so my passion for chamber music still drives my decisions to apply and participate in ChamberFest. This year, I was approached by my harpist, second-year master’s student Caroline Bembia (Pre-College ’09; BM ’14), who suggested performing Villa-Lobos’s Quinteto Instrumental, and I just hopped on the train. I would definitely encourage taking part in this incredible week. You get a similar intensity to summer festivals preparing significant works in a short time, which gives you a preview into the professional world of chamber music, and you can really dive deep into the work without the usual distraction of school. To be able to invest that kind of concentrated time with your peers to produce and share performance is always memorable. And having the opportunity to work closely with world-class coaches throughout the week is amazing and inspiring. Their guidance and expertise help us grow individually and as an ensemble as we prepare for our performance. Plus I was pleasantly surprised my first year when I discovered they provided free Chinese food dinner for one of the nights. It’s still something I look forward to every time. 
—Second-year master’s cellist Ken Kubota, who is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and holds the Carl Cloe and Rhea Cloe Scholarship, will participate in ChamberFest for the fourth time this year.

When I participated in ChamberFest last year for the first time, I thought that it would be an isolated and antisocial experience. To my surprise, it felt like a community because of the special events prepared only for the participants, including a private performance given by the Juilliard String Quartet. This year, I chose Messiaen’s Visions de L’amen. I’d always wanted to put this piece together with another pianist, but due to the duration and the difficulties of the piece, I could never do it. Then I brought this idea to my friend Wei Lin Chang [a second-year pianist], and after listening to it, he fell in love with the piece immediately. And even though it’s a rule that no groups of less than three people can apply, we felt so strongly about our repertoire and we believed that it fit the purpose of ChamberFest so well that we still submitted a proposal that explained our intensions and our repertoire. And that resulted in having a duet in ChamberFest for the first time in 15 years.
—Second-year master’s pianist Chi Wei Lo, who’s from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, holds the Vladimir Horowitz as well as the Ronald Csuha and Cecil Yarbrough scholarships.

This year will be my second year participating in ChamberFest—my first was in 2012—and I’m always blown away by the performances that follow these two weeks of intense work and dedication. It’s truly special to share masterpieces with your close friends during the holidays, obsessing over all the intricacies of the composers’ voice. Perhaps my favorite part about ChamberFest is that we get to choose our groups and dream up the repertoire. This year my group—which is made up of old and new friends from school and past festivals—chose Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) by Schoenberg. It’s a bucket-list piece for almost everyone I know, and it exhibits the universality of human emotion while showcasing the rich and colorful writing of Schoenberg. We get caught up during the year with school and its demands, so ChamberFest is the chance of a lifetime to focus on just music making with good friends. What could be better?
Second-year master’s violinist Jennifer Liu (Pre-College ’10; BM ’14, violin), who’s from Los Angeles, is a Kovner fellow.

I took part in the first year of ChamberFest, and it felt like such a luxury to have a studio to ourselves for the week, for practice and rehearsal—with a couch! Veda Kaplinsky [chair of the piano department, the artistic director of Pre- College, and an alumna] was our coach for Mendelssohn’s D-minor Trio, and she described how Mendelssohn “couldn't help himself ” at the end of the last movement— just had modulate to major and end exuberantly. I still think of her comment when I’m performing this piece, since it’s the performer’s job to effectively bring out the sunshine at the end. Musical careers inevitably involve multitasking these days, so it’s an increasingly rare privilege and joy to completely immerse yourself in music for a period of time to the exclusion of everything else. ChamberFest is fun and rejuvenating and it doesn’t really feel like you’ve given up your holiday break. If you have the opportunity, take it!
—Aaron Wunsch (MM ’03, DMA ’08, piano), a member of the music history and chamber music faculties, was one of the inaugural ChamberFest participants and has been a ChamberFest coach.

Watching the kids develop is like watching a National Geographic [time lapse video] that’s speeded-up 300 times; within a few minutes you [go] from seed to flower. 
—Joseph Kalichstein (BS ’67, MS ’69, piano) is a member of the piano faculty and the Edwin S. and Nancy A. Marks Chair in Chamber Music Studies. He’s also a ChamberFest coach.

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