For someone who knows very little about classical music, the idea of attending a two-hour-plus performance of the Tokyo String Quartet sounds daunting. Will I be bored? Will I understand the music? Will the experience be lost on a rube such as me?
Despite my apprehensions, I attend the opening night of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit’s 61st season. I purchase a $50 ticket that lands me in the fourth row, near center stage, of the Seligman Performing Arts Center at Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills. The Tokyo String Quartet is performing with the world-renowned pianist Jon Kimura Parker.
I’m seated next to 85-year-old Ruth Kovan, a season ticket holder (the average age of Chamber members is about 60). Kovan tells me she attended Chamber concerts when they were held at Detroit Orchestra Hall. In 1999, the Chamber moved to the Seligman Center. The venue seats 720, but the stage is close to the crowd. The Seligman Center is close to its audience as well — most chamber members reside in northern Oakland County.
Kovan lives in West Bloomfield. To help me follow along, she suggests I read the program notes, which include information about the musicians, the music and the composers.
As the Japanese quartet begins to play, I find the program notes illuminating. I didn’t expect when coming here to learn that Mozart had trouble composing string quartets. Or that Schumann married the daughter of his music teacher, who objected to the union.
The notes also help track each movement. The first half of the concert is a piece by Mozart, which turns out to be a blast. As for Bartók, think Alfred Hitchcock without a sense of humor. The music is thoroughly enchanting, inspiring. I could do this all the time.
Kovan tells me that her passion for string instruments began in Detroit’s public school system, where she learned how to read music in the fourth grade. She learned how to identify instruments by sound at Central High School, where she graduated in 1936.
“We had to listen to [instruments] with our eyes closed,” says Kovan.
During a 20-minute intermission, folks purchase goodies at the cafe and chat as if they know one another.
The concert ends with “Piano Quintet in E-flat major” by Schumann, who died in 1856 at the age of 46 after spending several years in an asylum. It’s a dark piece, slow at times, but relentless. The final movement picks up with a constant intensity that has the musicians sweating as they kick out the final note.
“That was a rouser,” exclaims Kovan as she joins the rest of the crowd in a standing ovation.
It’s a thrilling experience; I can’t wait to come back.
Although the Chamber has been around since 1944, I only recently discovered it. My curiosity peaked last year when I met Chamber President Lois Beznos at the home of her cousin. Beznos, a quiet, petite woman, has been instrumental in making the Chamber Music Society thrive. Under her tutelage, beginning in 1995, the Chamber has gone from barely staying afloat to selling out entire seasons — currently, the season has been sold out for two years and carries a lengthy waiting list (though unused season tickets can almost always be purchased the night of a concert). The small nonprofit now enjoys an international reputation; musicians vie for slots in the monthly concert series, which runs from September through May.
“It never occurred to me that I could end up running it,” says Beznos of the chamber. Like Kovan, Beznos grew up listening to chamber music, as her father and mother used to head a local chamber society.
She says the genre is commonly described as “one on a part,” meaning a musician plays part of a composition, whereas an orchestra is made up of many musicians who play the same part.
Chamber music originally was performed in large rooms (chambers) of private homes, which is how the genre got its name. Last fall, Beznos invited me to a fundraiser for the Chamber at a historic mansion in Palmer Woods on Detroit’s northwest side to see, or rather hear, how chamber music is intended to be enjoyed. The Juilliard String Quartet briefly performed for about 60 attendees. It was a seductive introduction. Of course it didn’t hurt that the concert was followed by hors d’oeuvres and sweets, including a fountain of milk chocolate for dipping fruit and other treats.
Christine and George Michaels have spent years refurbishing their historic Palmer Woods home, and will host another such fundraiser for the Chamber on Dec. 3. Tickets are going fast. Tickets also are available for the Chamber’s piano series, which started this year and includes three performances.
The piano series is part of Beznos’ mission to continually expand the Chamber program. “I don’t want it to be a static experience,” she says.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s anything but.
See the Chamber music schedule here. Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. She can be reached at 313-202-8015 or firstname.lastname@example.org