When chamber music turns competitive, it’s winner takes all

When chamber music turns competitive, it’s winner takes all


norman lebrecht

December 20, 2018

Anthea Kreston’s diary:

I have a procrastination problem. It is almost impossible to get me to hold off doing something – I am an incessant list-maker, and always have way too many ideas and things I am planning, and I have an obsessive pride in alway getting them done (which sometimes means hiring a helper or two, like I have done for the “Inside Music” tour in March – there are still a couple of openings, let me know if you want a space).

Jason, who has an interesting mix of do-er and procrastinator, is always encouraging me to be lazier. He has three methods – 1. during an emergency nap, he sneaks in and turns off my alarm, 2. he randomly hands me snuggly things like blankets or slippers, or alcoholic beverages, 3. he casually mentions a new video game – like, “did you catch that NYT article yesterday about Red Dead Redemption 2? It is supposed to have spectacular scenery, and you can use a bow and arrow…..“. Every birthday, he downloads a video game for me on the PlayStation, and every year or so, when I am nearing a burnout, I become weak and stay up really late at night for a week, playing until my eyes are as dry as sandpaper – and magically my glass of wine stays full and snacks appear.

Quartet concerts have wrapped up for the year, I have only a couple of days left teaching at the University, and I am neck-deep into Red Dead, which does actually have amazing scenery. I spend as much time as possible in my PJ‘s, and I want to eat only popcorn and cookies. I wore my slippers to the dentist today. Life is good.

Here is a story.

I have several relatives who play in the studios in Los Angeles (movies, tv, commercials, shows). Those LA people make obscene amounts of money, and live good lives, but of course, kindof like switching from violin to viola, you have to sell your soul to the devil. Gone are the days of emotional satisfaction through music making, toiling over a measure for weeks with the metronome; hello whole notes with fermatas, interspersed by incredibly difficult but emotionally vapid pyrotechnics, a healthy dose of ponticello, all while in the comfort of your own personal clicktrack, delivered via headphones, and a back-stage buffet that would give any carb-sensitive individual whiplash.

And so, apparently, any opportunity to play chamber music in this environment is a major carrot-dangler. Rare and tantalizing. These musicians are the top of their field, and incredible sightreaders, and have become accustomed to making music with very little rehearsal, and no personal involvement. Just lay it on down, babycakes. And, of course, with chamber music‘s slow boil, and need for almost ridiculous emotional and technical psychoanalysis, it is like backwards day when they get a chance to play Chamber. Just turn your sweater right on around.

My relative had a chance several years ago to play a chamber concert with some really top-name LA musicians. The rehearsals were hilarious – some people rolling in over an hour late, a smattering of drinking problems, everyone sightreading, but nailing it, and just basically chaos. The concert was in a huge hall, packed, and right before going on-stage, when your typical chamber group would be individually collecting themselves, or offering final tidbits of supportive advice to their colleagues, a member of my relative’s group turned to the other members as he walked on stage, pumped his fist, and said “WINNER TAKES ALL!”

My relative was in such shock, not knowing if this was either: A. serious, or B. the best-delivered straight-faced joke they ever witnessed. The mystery was never solved, but the gift just keeps on giving – it has become a standard part of my chamber music teaching. Win the concert!! It’s you against them – crush your opponents and win, win, win! And now, it is my gift to you. Also – try Red Dead Redemption 2 – you can wander around on your horse for days, and the mountains are so lovely…..




  • Pianofortissimo says:

    That’s something to think about. “Winner takes all”. But isn’t chamber music a matter of playing together? Any pianist can easily downplay any string player by just hammering his Steinway a little more “forte”, in this way being always the “winner”, or he-who-plays-brilliantly. Two examples: Pierre Fournier appreciated playing with Friedrich Gulda – “Fritz” wanted to make good music, not to “win” the “game”. And that’s the reason I dislike so much the recording of Brahms’ violoncello sonatas with Piatigorsky and Rubinstein – the latter played as a killer.

    • Anthea Kreston says:

      Yes – that’s the whole joke! It is exactly the opposite of that – it is helping out your colleagues, having goodwill towards others.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    Well this will certainly affect how I perceive future chamber music concerts in LA…

    • Anthea Kreston says:

      Haha – well – they are incredible musicians! I don’t think I would survive 10 minutes in one of those studio sessions – these people can really play. Cream of the crop, and legends in the field. It just takes a bit of time to switch gears into different genres.

      • Ravi Narasimhan says:

        What has been seen cannot be unseen. I will now subconsciously be looking for a seat up front so I can check for a wobbly step, bloodshot eyes, and other signs.

        • Anthea Kreston says:

          Haha. Fair enough. We used to get a weekly box of delicious organic produce from a farm in Oregon, and one week our babysitter made a glorious salad. I was about halfway through my large bowl, when I saw a happy, chubby slug rounding the corner of a particularly lovely corner of the salad. Of course, this moment is seared into my brain forever. There were even waving antennas. Three choices – eat the rest of the salad, always maintain vigilance when purchasing bio products from this particular lettuce purveyor, or give up and go for the bagged lettuce at the Stop-n-Shop. Each solution has its own host of complicated repercussions. But, in the end, the person on that the end of the fork has to choose their own path. What has once been seen cannot be unseen.

  • Phillip Ayling says:

    While I don’t know the individuals involved in this story, my personal experience playing recording session in Los Angeles has not been driven by obscene amounts of money.

    I have also found that working in an environment without tenure has also caused me to be more sympathetic and focused on ‘playing well with others’, both as a performer and as a colleague.

    It has been very challenging and rewarding on a musical level and the devil doesn’t seem to have an ownership stake in my soul that is necessarily larger than that which might be found in musicians whose performing is more removed from an Electronic Media focus.

  • Daniel Greenhouse says:

    I thought that it was the VIOLIN always considered to be the instrument of the devil. Switching from violin to viola releases one from the devil’s hold. I have felt this myself, having switched from violin to the viola at age 69 after a lifetime of violin playing. Viola is so much healthier. And I now get to (try to) play the Arpeggione! Life (and impending death) has never been better.

  • Marg says:

    Have a great family Christmas Anthea, wandering around in your slippers and doing whatever you want to do!

  • buzzearl says:

    “I have several relatives who play in the studios in Los Angeles (movies, tv, commercials, shows). Those LA people make obscene amounts of money, and live good lives, but of course, kindof like switching from violin to viola, you have to sell your soul to the devil.”

    Ms. Kreston: You are clearly a highly gifted musician but I find your comments about LA studio musicians a unique combination of inaccurate and frankly .. just plain stale. Sure it’s fun to poke fun at anything having to do with L.A.– (because after all, there is nothing artistically worthy taking place in L.A., right?), but the studio musicians whom I know not only make decent livings that compare with other specializations which require 20+ years of study, but are also supremely gifted, and play in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, sub in the L.A. Phil, and also play a tremendous amount of chamber orchestra– and play it very, very well. As to your comment that “playing the viola is like selling your soul to the devil” …I’m truly not sure how to respond, as I have heard your excellent recording of the Brahms Sonata and your are clearly an highly talented violist. However, I would ask you: Is there some point that violists can stop being sucker-punched or the butt of every joke about musicians? What makes you think it’s funny to continue this demeaning tradition .. even if it’s in jest?