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What is an Ensemble?

In his second classical music column Guts & Rosin, violinist Gary Levinson writes about the idea of being in an ensemble of musicians.

published Monday, October 16, 2017



Traveling has its advantages. Problem-solving is one: I still can’t believe I was able to explain to a Turkish border patrol officer that my iPad requires a different charger than my laptop and is not an instrument of war. Another is never relaxing at the airport. Just last week, I was approached while standing in line at an airport vendor as I was about to make the monumental decision between chopped brisket and venison sausage.

“I know you,”, the man said assuredly. “I’ve seen you play. You play in an ensemble.” After a few minutes of polite small talk and gleefully deciding on the really important part of this encounter (sausage), it struck me that one rarely hears the word “ensemble” in conversation anymore. At least, not in English. In French, it is part of the fashion vocabulary. But in the vernacular, it’s sort of a specialty word, like “stowage” and “aft.” As a working musician, it got me thinking about the evolution of ensembles over the years. And since we have a proliferation of ensembles on the touring circuit, I thought it might be interesting to share one man’s experience about them.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Gary Levinson
In the chamber music world, the most versatile ensemble is the string quartet. Some of the most sublime music by the greatest composers was written for this combination of two violins, viola and cello. Perhaps, due to that fact, the great quartets had equally great personalities. The Juilliard, Guarneri, Quartetto Italiano, Vermeer, The Hollywood and countless others formed in the 20th century could not only be recognized by their tone on stage, but their tone to each other. People often would clamor to attend an open rehearsal not so much to glean pearls of musical wisdom from their favorite group, but to hear members of the group sarcastically put each other down. What is it about this particular combination of instruments that cause this fascinating personal dynamic? One vintage quartet cellist told me years ago the definition of his job:

  1. Show up on time
  2. Always play louder than the violist
  3. Never play louder than the first violinist

The other side of the coin was epitomized by the legendary David Soyer, cellist of the Guarneri Quartet. The senior member of the group formed at the Marlboro Music Festival, Soyer was a giant of a man, with personality befitting his size. The democracy of that group would be in some ways dictated by the mood of Mr. Soyer. But he and the entire group always served the music which is why they stayed together for 45 and a half years.

How have Quartets evolved? Generally speaking, the personalities are tempered for the benefit of the group. Many string quartets are incorporated as legal entities, so the members are viewed as shareholders, expected to represent the whole much more than themselves. This often becomes an issue when economics dictate whether to commission a new work, go on tour or play a concert in a small venue which barely covers the costs.

A huge consideration is travel. Because the Quartet cello travels in aircraft cabins with the group (no one will check an instrument as it will almost certainly be damaged in the cargo hold), cellists are relegated to conniptions when explaining to gate agents that they are entitled to the seat they purchased for the instrument.  Regrettably, you hear stories routinely that, despite US law specifically compelling airlines to honor a ticket bought for an instrument, gate agents and flight attendants refuse to recognize this law and kick musicians off the plane if they won’t comply. Worse, they try to force them to pay exorbitant fees on top of their legitimate tickets.

So why not hire an ad hoc group to play quartets, you say? I would say the simplest answer would be to do it right it would take them more than a year to rehearse. Not to learn to play together, but a true ensemble in the medium of the string quartet is the elision of tone color. The kind of seamless interplay between four top instrumentalists takes years to develop and is not a given even after the requisite time. It’s a deep commitment to the music and each other which is essentially a way of life. So, in my humble opinion, if you want a great string quartet, you hire one. Trying to create one from four outstanding musicians is an exercise in frustration for them and the audience. The magic of a great ensemble is to make adjustments without talking about it. In complex quartet repertory, it just takes too long.

Are Trios different? In a word, yes. Piano trios, starting with middle period Beethoven, are generally very piano demanding, so the equality is shifted by the nature of the writing.  Another wrinkle is, unlike string players, the pianist is at the mercy of the instrument offered by the venue. So one has to adjust on the fly, no matter what you rehearsed at home. And string trio repertory tends to be a tad less numerous than piano trios so those groups are often touring groups but do not necessarily rehearse daily during the entire year. Often they tour with specific programs, which they will offer a presenter in a given season and when there is enough interest, they will get together to rehearse that year’s programs.

Finally part of the ensemble is the concert dress. There has been much debate about whether a more casual dress code on stage correlates to acceptance by the masses, at least of classical music. The white tie outfit, tails for the men, seems more appropriate for the Titanic dinner party (not the screening of the movie) than an evening out in the 21st century.  Some orchestras have adopted a colorful top for ladies rather than the all black with patent leather shoes traditional look.

The chamber ensemble is an easier conversation. They almost never perform in tails. Interestingly enough, the ladies in quartets and trios often perform in glamorous gowns. Is it possible that the theater of opera, Broadway and such, excites the audience in other musical disciplines? While large gowns are impractical in large ensembles, such as orchestras, it’s lovely to see a soloist or a chamber music recital with one or more of the artists in a gorgeous gown. The outfit changes the attitude of the audience. They listen differently. Especially when the artist changes in the intermission into another, equally stunning gown.

A hidden related issue is the question of checked vs. carry-on luggage for all travelers. I know many who simply won’t take a chance on their concert dress being lost, rerouted, stuck on the tarmac during a tropical rainstorm only to have to play in the clothes they flew in on or wearing a borrowed outfit. So they opt for something practical i.e. fits in the overhead compartment. I can’t say I blame them, since I have experienced most of the above on my own skin. I know one artist who overnights their outfits with a reputable carrier since the airlines are so much less reliable.

Today’s ensembles are highly flexible, well-seasoned professionals who are schooled in not just the nuances of great masterpieces but in the art of Hipmunk. It is fun to know that they are real people who are capable of delivering great profundity for two hours and still figure out how to have status with their respective airline partners. 


» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.

» Guts & Rosin runs on the third Monday of the month on TheaterJones.



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What is an Ensemble?
In his second classical music column Guts & Rosin, violinist Gary Levinson writes about the idea of being in an ensemble of musicians.
by Gary Levinson

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