Why Is This University Jumping on the Chamber Music Bandwagon?

It may not be on par with, say, Beatlemania, but we've been intrigued by the steady stream of impressive gifts to chamber music organizations over the last twelve months.

About a year ago, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra received a $400,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to "engage musicians of varying demographic backgrounds." More recently, we looked at a $4 million gift to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, courtesy of Jane Kitselman, a patron and cellist who passed away in March of 2015. It represents the largest unrestricted gift in the society's history. (Fun fact: Kitselman was also a supporter of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.)

Now comes word that the University of Michigan is creating a new competition, the M-Prize, along with $100,000 for the winner, all in an effort to focus attention on what the New York Times calls the "rapidly evolving field" of chamber music.

So why, exactly, is the field rapidly evolving? Two answers come to mind.

The first is the fact that chamber orchestras can provide musicians with a viable and sustainable career path. Aaron P. Dworkin, the dean of the university's School of Music, Theater, and Dance, came up with the idea for the prize, and noted that "the vast possibilities inherent in chamber music empower it with the unique ability to serve as a catalyst for interdisciplinary exploration and, ultimately, transformational artistic experiences."

That sounds slightly vague, so to see what Dworkin means, we'll turn to the second reason for chamber music's ascendancy—its ability to reach new audiences. If a symphony orchestra is the stuffy grandfather of the classical music world, chamber orchestras represent the cool uncle. (Please note, we're being hyperbolic solely for effect here.)

Recent years have seen many ensembles performing across genres and, in the process, attracting new listeners. Take the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The ensemble is known for its collaborative leadership style in which the musicians (not a conductor) interpret the score. Its performance and recording repertoire ranges from the Baroque masterworks of Handel and Mozart symphonies, to recording of English and America folk songs with countertenor Andreas Scholl, to Creation, a collection of the impressionist music from 1920s Paris with saxophonist Branford Marsalis. It should come as no surprise that foundations like Mellon, so committed broadening exposure to the arts, would support outfits like Orpheus.

This brings us back to Mr. Dworkin. If his name rings a bell, it's no coincidence. He used to run the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, whose primary mission is to increase diversity in the classical music world. (Check out our take on Sphinx's partnership with IMG Artists to pair minority classical musicians with some of the planet's most famous musicians.)

The open-minded, collaborative ethos running through groups like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Sphinx Organization lies at the heart of the M-Prize, which will be open to ensembles with three to eight members. The prize will include a junior division for musicians under 18 and includes a category that recognizes "open" ensembles, which can feature percussion, singers, turntables, laptops (!) and styles including jazz, bluegrass, and other genres that incorporate improvisation.

The grand prize winner will be selected from three senior division finalists who will perform at a gala concert at the university on May 20th that will be broadcast on Detroit Public Television and made available to other public television stations around the country.

All in all, the news out of Ann Arbor suggests that despite other stories to the contrary, certain classical music genres seem to be thriving in the state.