Chamber music reinvented

Say the words “chamber music,” and you can watch people’s eyes glaze over. The words conjure images of stuffy elites, highbrow culture and hours of music that, to many, is just plain boring. The Montana Chamber Music Society is debunking that myth. On Wednesday, Jan. 27, a quartet of musicians presented classical music with a modern twist.

The combination of musicians onstage was enough to generate attention — cellist Sara Stalker, pianist Philip Aaberg, electric violinist Tracy Silverman and MSU violin professor Angella Ahn. Each is a renowned musician in their own right, and together they were truly memorable. The two violins — one acoustic and one electric — were especially interesting to hear. Both had unique voices, and neither ever took center stage. Silverman and Ahn mixed perfectly, trading melodic lines easily and fluidly.

The music itself was no less fascinating. The concert’s second half was Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, but the majority of the concert wasn’t purely classical. The program called it a “potpourri of jazz.” The musicians had taken classical pieces and arranged them in new ways, and gave the audience what Silverman jokingly called classical “derangements.” For demonstration, Aaberg played a piece from Bach’s “Three Part Inventions” as it was meant to sound. Then, he and Silverman launched into a funky version. The piece flowed effortlessly from classical to jazz extremes. The original melody was never completely lost, but was joined by echoes of jazz standards such as “Blue Skies” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” It finished with a big Dixieland-style end, both Aaberg and Silverman improvising melodies which intertwined to a final ringing note.

The “derangements” were a large part of the evening, but by no means all of it. Original compositions were also given a good showing. Silverman played a one-man piece with the assistance of a loop pedal — when melodies are played and then looped, they continue to be heard after the musician has stopped playing them himself. The piece was called “Matisse La Danse” after a painting by the famous artist Henri Matisse. It consisted of six voicings of Silverman’s violin, with five representing the dancers in the painting. Each melody had a unique personality, and each was played simultaneously, so the piece began to sound like a rowdy, joyous party. The sixth voice was Silverman improvising.

Aaberg and Ahn also played one of Aaberg’s original compositions, a piece called “Nevertheless, Hello.” The title was taken from a 1965 Ursula Andress film and was a complex and beautiful work. The main theme was a rolling triad-like melody, which would vanish periodically, only to reappear some time later. The piece had a light, beautiful lilt to its rhythms and gave a nostalgic mood to the room.

The evening continued with other originals and rewritten classical pieces until the second half of the performance. Then, a trio of Aaberg, Ahn and Stalnaker took to the stage for Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio No. 1.” The performance banished any doubts about classical music’s power. From the tense beginnings of the “Molto Allegro ed Agitato” to the lively “Scherzo” to the energetic ending, the work showcased the talents of the musicians perfectly.

Classical music may always have a connotation of the world of snobby culture. But for anyone in the audience, the concert was proof that that needn’t be the case. The performances were energetic and inspired, the banter with the audience was easy and the music was full of passion and beauty. Perhaps classical music isn’t so boring after all.