Chamber music, a form of classical music composed of a small group of instruments without a conductor, each of which produces its own unique sound, has given birth to some of the most famous minds in music: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bach. But at one point in time, many of these now-celebrated artists were considered outlaws, threats to the status quo due to their independence of thought.
Before chamber music existed, the world of classical music was strictly hierarchical and communal. Musicians would perform either alone behind closed doors, for princes, or in unison at a church. It wasn’t until around the time of the French and American Revolutions -a time of rebellion, enlightenment, and independence- that chamber music arose as an art form.
“Through the actions of the musicians during this time, they were able to express, ‘We are confident, we are independent, we are equal, let’s do this…Independence of thought, of mind and of spirit is really encapsulated in what classical chamber music is, and that’s what is beautiful about this art form,” said Rebecca Hang, one of three members of the Eastern Sierra’s Felici Trio, and coordinator of the upcoming Unbound Chamber Music Festival coming to Mammoth this week.
The Sheet sat down this week with Hang, a violin player, and her cellist husband Briant Schuldt, co-coordinator of the festival. Together they have been bringing classical music education to the Eastern Sierra since 1998.
The couple is excited to celebrate the 23rd year of the Unbound Festival with a return to its original venue, the lobby of Cerro Coso Community College, where it hasn’t been held since 2019.
Due to Covid, they had to stream the festival in 2020, and then in 2021 it was (ironically) held at the Catholic Church.
“When you stream a concert, it’s a little bit like going through a drive-thru for food. You don’t get the intricate smells of good food cooking, the ambience, the experience, you just get hit with a wave of frying oil,” said Hang.
Many of this year’s featured performers are former classmates of Rebecca and Brian at Indiana University, which boasts the biggest music school in the United States and where the couple first met as young music students. This includes Amadi Azikiwe on the viola, who was the Felici Ensemble’s first ever featured guest, as well as Emilio Colón on the cello, who is not only a fellow Indiana University alumni, but now is a professor there. Colón also composes his own music, and one of his pieces named “Tango N” will be featured during the festival performance on Friday, July 29.
The overall lineup has performers ranging in age from 21 to their mid-70’s. “As chamber music players, you can be in your professional activity for a long time and we love that. I think it’s nice for the audience too, because it’s really generationally-transitioning; people often think that it’s only old people that go to classical music concerts but that is not entirely true. It’s nice to see the audience be reflected in the performance ages,” said Hang.
They’ve taken this same generation-spanning approach with their chosen repertoire. “We are covering several centuries with the music we chose. We’ve got old and new, Bach from the mid-1700s, then through the classical period like Beethoven and Mozart, and then the romantic period like Franck and Brahms, all the way up to pieces that were written just a couple of years ago,” said Schuldt.
They have also chosen classical music that spans several continents, including South America, America, and Europe.
“We were looking for repertoire to include that even the most seasoned concert goers are not so familiar with. Everyone loves the Beethoven, the Mozart, the Schubert, but for us, chamber music is a living art form. It’s an art form that expresses not just the composer’s personal feelings, but also their times and their social circumstances,” said Hang.
This is reflected through the festival’s program notes, which describe in detail the personal and social circumstances that shaped each of the featured composers at the time of them writing their music.
Much like an epic Star-Wars saga, many of these performers were influenced by each other’s work despite being from different time periods. “It’s like a language. Performers from certain time periods were influenced by the languages of those that came before them. And when people come to multiple concerts during the festival, they start making connections between the pieces and between the composers. And that’s a wonderful journey of discovery,” said Hang.
The festival also incorporates a student component; performances on both Sundays will feature students who have taken part in the Sierra Academy of Music, a fellowship music camp for college-aged music students who come to the Eastern Sierra on free tuition and housing for a week, forming small chamber groups leading up to a concert at the end of each week on Sunday.
Most of the students have never performed in a chamber ensemble that doesn’t have a conductor. “It’s really empowering for them, and a lot of them leave thinking, ‘Oh, I can do things out of my own musical strength,’” explained Hang.
According to the couple, chamber music is a lot like democracy.
“Chamber music differs from other classical music forms because there is only one voice in a group, and those voices are not doubled. In an orchestra, for example, you have many violins. But in chamber music, you just have one. And with that one violin, you might have one other cello, and a piano, and that forms a piano trio. Or you have two violins, the viola, and a cello, and that forms a string quartet. But each voice has its own part. And what we find so fascinating about that art form is that it’s a little bit like democracy in a nutshell. Each player can contribute their voice, their own part, and together it forms a beautiful whole. You can’t discourage one voice, either. Each voice matters, each voice carries its own import. It’s an art form that’s really relevant to our times because it allows each individual to speak with their own voice, and it allows people who have very different political outlooks to sit together in one room, and without talking, they have to work together to form the same whole,” said Hang.
“In other art forms, there are internal sounds like a drum or a bass, something that the audience can clearly hear and see, as to what keeps the group together. In the case of chamber music, it’s less tangible. You don’t really know what keeps the performance together, but you feel it.
*For information on this year’s festival, see the ad on page 9.