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Chamber Musicians Play Viable Tune : Music: Recession forces orchestras to tighten their belts, but small groups such as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center fare better.


Lots of American orchestras are floundering in red ink these days. Chamber groups, on the other hand, are generally doing fine.

The reason? Chamber music has "portability, durability and resilience," says David Shifrin, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

"All you need for a chamber concert is a few people to play the music and a few people to listen," Shifrin said in a recent phone interview from Harrisburg, Penn., where the ensemble was starting a cross-country tour that continues at Pepperdine University in Malibu today and at the Queen Mary in Long Beach on Friday.

"You don't have to fill a hall with thousands of people," he said. "Some of the most satisfying performances are in homes. You can adapt to environments as diverse as the home and the Queen Mary.

"You can also talk about quality and economics in the same phrase because it's possible to hire a trio of the finest musicians in the world for a lot less than it costs to hire a 100-piece orchestra of the finest musicians in the world.

"And the repertory supports it," he continued. "There is far more chamber music than symphonic repertory. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, but maybe six evenings (worth) of string quartets. Mozart wrote a couple of hundred chamber works. Brahms wrote four symphonies, but with all the quartets and quintets he wrote, a quite amazing (chamber) repertoire is there."


The society will play the same program of work by Mozart, Saint-Saens, Ravel and Debussy at all three sites. Founded in 1969, the Lincoln Center group is currently celebrating its 25th season and has recently developed a different strategy for extending that longevity.

"What we're doing now," said Shifrin, "is to have clusters of concerts of brief tours, lasting a week and a half--but to do many of them. So we do lots of different programs with different instrumental combinations, rather than booking a month of one-night stands, doing one program with one ensemble."

The lineup for this tour swing includes, besides clarinetist Shifrin, flutist Ransom Wilson, violinist Ani Kafavian, violists Paul Neubauer and Carmit Zori, cellist Fred Sherry and harpist Nancy Allen.

"That way we get to vary the repertoire and vary what different sponsors might be interested in programming," Shifrin said. "It's an interesting puzzle to put together. It's also absolutely to survive and to keep it interesting for us as well as for the audience."

Shifrin began playing as a guest with the group in 1980 and by 1989 had become a regular member. He became artistic director in 1992.

Although chamber music has often embodied the most austere and abstract musical thinking of the great composers, Shifrin feels that "the esoteric" reputation of the repertoire "simply doesn't hold true in my opinion. . . . You could say the same thing about symphonic repertoire: Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra are not as accessible to people who know Beethoven's Fifth."

To those who think chamber music lacks the instrumental variety and the big sound of an orchestra, Shifrin said: "What you lack in the big effects, the bombast, the big sound, you make up with immediacy and intimacy.

"There's a lot to be said for chamber music in which one musician plays on a part and the audience can identify with the music-making, as opposed to a less personal music ensemble where as many as 16 people are playing the same line."

In fact, the audience becomes even more important in a chamber music program, Shifrin said.

"You're definitely aware of the audience. Otherwise you would just want to make recordings, like some musicians have decided to do. But there is nothing like the live experience," he said.

"On recordings you can make (the playing) note perfect, edit all you want, but a live event has a beginning, middle and end. It's an event where anything can happen."

* The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will play works by Mozart, Saint-Saens, Debussy and Ravel today at 8 p.m. at the Smothers Theater, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 456-4522. Also Friday at 8 p.m. at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, (310) 440-1351.

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