It's called "chamber music" for a reason, folks, so I went to hear some in a chamber. The chamber was the living room of one of those attractive and cozy old houses in Berkeley, this one a few blocks south of the UC campus. About 30 people, and one white cat, gathered around, most on folding chairs, pretty much filling up the adjacent front parlor and foyer facing the musicians in the main room. Those not near the front couldn't see very well, but nothing impeded the listening.
The music was three trios for clarinet, cello, and piano, spanning approximately the course of the 19th century: Beethoven's early Trio in B-flat, Op. 11, of 1797; Glinka's Trio pathétique in D minor, of 1832; and Brahms' late Trio in A minor, Op. 114, of 1891. What made this survey particularly interesting was the use of instruments of the kind played at the time each work was written. Tanya Tomkins played the same - gut-stringed, naturally - cello throughout; that instrument didn't change much during that period. But the other two musicians both actually collect period and period-reproduction instruments, and showed off their wares.
Small as the house was, it actually had room for four pianos - flush up against the walls - as well as the audience, and we heard three of them. Eric Zivian played first a reproduction of a 1795 fortepiano for Beethoven, then one of an early modern piano for Glinka. Then we all turned our chairs around to face the parlor, where he took up a modern Steinway for Brahms. Each successive instrument was more powerful, hardly needed in this tiny space, and to keep the Steinway tamed the lid was just slightly open, propped on a medium-sized book.
Eric Hoeprich, we were informed, owns more than a hundred antique clarinets - well, they take up less space than pianos. His three were all antique wooden clarinets. Unlike the piano's, the clarinet's sound didn't change much over the century, but increasing sophistication of the mechanisms allowed players to perform more complex and chromatic music, which the composers took advantage of.
They also took advantage of the piano's increasing range. Zivian pointed out that both Glinka and Brahms delighted in the far end notes unavailable to earlier composers. The thunderous lowest note on a modern grand is an A, the tonic note of Brahms' trio, and don't think he didn't use it to deepen a few chords down to the bedrock.
The sound of the pianos underlined the difference in style of the pieces and the performances. The 1795 fortepiano gave a lively and crisp sound to the Beethoven. Tomkins used a little portamento, expressive sliding of notes, in the Adagio. The richer bell-like sound of the second piano emphasized the Romantic soul the players brought to Glinka. And, with Zivian's Steinway as anchor, to the Brahms the musicians brought additional measures of both grace and passion. Hoeprich plays a cool, restrained clarinet, appropriate for this civilized chamber music. All three works were given charm and beauty in these performances, as well as their own individual character.
This concert was the last of the season for Benvenue House Music, which has been running these house events for several years now. The same folks are starting up a new festival this July, the Valley of the Moon Music Festival, with three weekends of concerts at the concert hall of the Hanna Boys Center in Agua Caliente, near Sonoma, and additional winter-season concerts at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. As with the Benvenue concerts, the principle here is to play 18th and 19th century chamber music on the original instruments of each composer's day (or reproductions thereof), in an intimate chamber setting. Sounds good, and worth taking a trip to Sonoma for - not to mention those of you who live near there anyway.