ChamberFest, which takes place each January, features eight concerts by student ensembles.
Though in most cases students form their own ensembles for ChamberFest, in my case both this year and last, the ensemble chose me. In 2014, they needed someone to play clarinet in the Schnittke Serenade, and offered me the chance. I was the youngest in the group, and no doubt the least experienced. Rehearsals were long and arduous. The piece was chaotic to a degree I had never experienced, and I struggled to learn my part and put it together with the ensemble. Still the adventure and demand of learning it was some of the most fun I have ever had playing music. To do it all again, I was ready to take advantage of the opportunity in whatever form it was presented.
Still, when I signed up this year, I didn't even know what the piece would be or who I would be playing with, and it turned out that in the ensemble of nine that would tackle the Brahms Serenade No. 1, I knew only two people. They were master's student John Hong, the other clarinetist, and Joshua "J.J." Sechan, who's a fourth-year bassoonist and who everyone knew since he handled our logistics—applications, music rentals, rehearsal schedules. But the fact that knowing J.J. may have been the only connection between us was nothing to be concerned about. I should mention a few of things about ChamberFest to show why.
First, since rehearsals take place during the last week of winter break, just putting in an application expresses a true passion for chamber music. To apply is to sacrifice time with friends and family to come back to school early and rehearse six or more hours each day (including two hours with a professional coach)—with even more rehearsing every day leading up to the performance. The second thing is, since there are no classes or orchestra rehearsals during rehearsal week, students can put together larger pieces than are possible during the rest of the year— it would be virtually impossible to coordinate nine people's schedules to rehearse a nonet during the semester. Other pieces feature unique instrumentation, or are notoriously hard to play. After a week of focused rehearsal, the performances are passionate and captivating.
On our first day of rehearsal, we found that it didn't matter that we hardly knew each other and began venturing into every corner of the Brahms, exploring its intricacies, and preparing for a performance of the highest caliber. Everyone contributed their interpretive preferences to mold the piece to their taste. Though they were always constructive, critiques were thrown with force. Every time we went over a section, two or three people would point out things that should have been done differently.
Rehearsing every day for a week has the inevitable effect of speeding up friendships. Being critiqued for six hours each day by people you have only just met quickly dismantles any walls of insecurity or ego. To play at a high level takes thick skin. By the end of day one, we were like a group of old friends who had been building trust and camaraderie for years.
It would be misleading to say that all of our rehearsal time was spent rehearsing. During our breaks we took advantage of our rehearsal space, which was outfitted like a living room with two chairs and a couch. The ensemble in the room adjacent to ours was rehearsing a piece with piano, marimba, and saxophone that sounded like some sort of slow, avant-garde jazz. As we approached our sixth and seventh hours cooped up in the room, we often found ourselves lounging, talking, and listening to the groove of music through the walls.
On the day of our performance, I awoke with a pounding headache and a fever that flirted with 103 degrees. It was my second day sick with the flu. For hours I sat in bed, questioning whether I would be able to perform. But when I reflected on my time with the group, it seemed like years of friendship had been distilled into our week together. I had to be there. At the highest level, chamber music takes sacrifices. This would be one more. My parents came in from New Jersey to check on me, since they had already taken the afternoon off to see the concert. As my mom heated up some chicken noodle soup, I dressed for the show. The black suit accented my sickly skin tone. I ate the soup, my first full meal in two days, and downed a few ibuprofen.
My memory of the performance is hazy. What little energy I had began to fade around the third movement, and by the fifth, my hands were clammy and slippery on the keys. Still, everyone played well and we bowed to rousing applause. After the audience left, we recounted rehearsal memories, talked about what an amazing experience we'd had, and took last riffs on the inside jokes that had taken shape during our time together. I left, proud and excited, and fell asleep on the way home.