Spotlight On: Brattle Street Chamber Players

October 9, 2011


The Brattle Street Chamber Players are some of the silliest and most serious musicians on campus—and that’s the only way they’ll have it. They’re informal to the last: they rehearse in the Quincy Bullitt room, they have no conductor, and they claim to get most of their work done the week before the concert. But if they don’t take themselves too seriously—arranger Lucien Werner ’13 is credited as “Luc Skywalker” in the program, and violist Nora Murphy ’12 halfheartedly insists that “it’s not like we try to be aggressively strange”—they do take their musicianship seriously. Every member HAR spoke to was thrilled to play together with such talented musicians—and to be in a group that “makes fun of ourselves and everyone we know, because the music is serious, but there’s no reason we have to be.”

Brattle is democratic and informal. There aren’t really any official positions—members step in to do what needs to be done. Repertoire is chosen by the group as a whole on the “I really want to play this!” principle—which is possible because, as Jeremy says, “everyone’s played everything,” and the group can sight-read through a lot of pieces before choosing. Most amazingly, Brattle has no conductor: for this 14-member group, this means that the ability to communicate is prized most of all when accepting members into the group.

Ideally at least one person in rehearsal knows the piece well and can help guide the others. But sometimes, as with the new compositions commissioned from student composers each year, nobody knows what’s going to happen. And always, rehearsals are punctuated by a flurry of talking—within sections, between sections—whenever there’s a pause, as members propose musical choices and come to a common understanding. Sometimes it seems like they understand each other instantly, as anyone who’s been to a Brattle concert can attest.

What we can’t see at concerts is how much work goes into making them possible, beyond simply rehearsing the music. Ying and Murphy both emphasize the challenges of finding suitable repertoire. Their ideal repertoire is “artistic, but accessible,” or more “scholarly” work made fun and accessible through the group’s expression. But there are hard limits: Brattle is too big to be a double quartet, too small to be an orchestra, and has an odd distribution of instruments—including a bass—besides. Hence one major reason why several Brattle players describe the student-composed pieces they commission every year as one of the greatest rewards of Brattle, besides the fun of a productive collaboration: these pieces, written specifically for Brattle, play to all their strengths and are written for their unique instrumentation.

One of the most ambitious arranging projects in Brattle’s recent memory was Werner’s arrangement of sections of Bach’s Art of Fugue for the group—the totally zany brainchild of double bassist David Miller ’11. There were problems: the folio was hard to read, things had to be cut because they didn’t start rehearsing early enough. But if it was certainly an eye-opening experience for those at the spring concert, it was even more exciting for Brattle. Ying recounts how at one rehearsal, Harvard music professor Christoph Wolff, one of the world’s experts on Bach, came in and “opened our eyes to different modes of articulation on the notes and how to carry the line”—something that may seem an obscure technical improvement, until you hear its effect on Brattle’s wonderful and unique interpretation of Bach. But there was music geek fun to be had at every rehearsal—Ying recalls the group’s delight whenever they would stop and notice, “hey look, an inversion!”

These musical jokesters carry their fun into concerts, with their infamous program notes and their hope that audiences will get all they’re trying to do. This spring, the program notes were written in the form of a fugue: things were repeated, fonts were changed, and the last line was chopped off in the middle because Bach died before he finished the piece. Program notes are designed for the musically initiated—beware of reading any of them at face value. Brattle musicians hope their audiences will catch on to their playfulness, like when, Ying laughs, they played a “big chord like a gun, then a tempo change going 50 clicks faster than any recording I’ve ever heard” during Schubert’s String Quartet in C Major. But they have broader ambitions too—Murphy hopes that their audiences will expand beyond friends of the musicians into “the arts community as a whole.”

That goal is already being realized. Brattle has worked with many other student groups over the years, including the Bach Society Orchestra, HRO, and the Holden Choirs, bringing in broader audiences through each. This spring they hosted Columbia’s fourbythree, a group like Brattle that also includes winds, in a joint concert full of innovative arrangements from both groups. There’s a kind of rivalry between the two—they are mostly old high school friends, and Brattle players jokingly worried fourbythree was going to show them up as frustration at rehearsals ran high. In the end, it was an all-around success. Ying remembers it as by far the most exciting concert he’s ever played in, and he’s played in a lot. But still, not all that excitement was for the love of the people and the music: the playing around never ends with Brattle. Ending our interview, he says, “it was great, there was so much foot stomping that we rained dust into Music Room 1 on all of fourbythree’s stuff.”

Katie Banks, Harvard Art Review Editor-in-Chief

For more about Brattle, visit their website or read our fall concert review. Their next concert will be Friday, November 4, 2011 at 8pm in Lowell Lecture Hall, featuring a program of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and an original composition by Jorge Ballesteros ’13.


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