Chamber music has been a part of the MCO’s activities since the orchestra was founded, and has in recent years taken on an increasingly important role. What exactly this means for the musicians of the MCO, and how chamber music is woven into the fabric of the MCO’s programming are questions that explore the fundamental basis of what makes the MCO work.
In Dortmund, the "U" is visible from just about everywhere in town. From the train station or the Konzerthaus, from Kampstraße or the shops on Westhellenweg - the 4-sided golden letter "U" perched on top of a high-rise is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks. When the building, formerly part of a local brewery, reopened in 2010 as a space for culture and creativity, the restaurant and bar nestled under the "U" on the top floor was a logical choice for the next chamber music concert of the Konzerthaus Dortmund’s "Wechselbar" series featuring the MCO. The 600 audience members who arrived at the "View" bar at the top of the "U" via a set of seven zigzag escalators included members of the Konzerthaus Friends Circle, musicians of the MCO, students from the region’s conservatories, people of all ages involved in the arts or simply interested in the new venue. The room, with its 15 meter arched ceilings, was darkened, with tables arranged on the main floor and plenty of standing room, DJ beats, the sound of bottle caps snapping and corks popping. The concert began with an MCO quartet playing Philip Glass’ trance-like Quartet no. 5, with spotlights and stand-lamps, a relaxed and contented audience, glasses in hand. For the second set, an ensemble of about 15 musicians, MCO and students of the Orchester zentrum|NRW, took the stage standing and the audience held its collective breath at the short Sibelius Impromptu they played before launching into Grieg’s Holberg Suite.
MCO playing is chamber playing Chamber music is central to the MCO’s identity, and also in the orchestra’s acronym. Although it sometimes leads to confused questioning, the word "chamber" in the orchestra’s name gets to the heart of how the musicians define the uniqueness of their playing. Fine-tuned listening and communicating in a group of alert and independent musical personalities - this describes the MCO in orchestra size as much as in any chamber ensemble. Through chamber music coaching at Dortmund’s Orchesterzentrum|NRW, this specific kind of orchestral musicianship can be passed on to the next generation. Because MCO playing is chamber playing, the chamber ensembles that come together for each chamber project benefit from their collective experience in the orchestra, and vice versa. Tim Summers, MCO member in the first violin section and seasoned chamber musician, puts it this way: "Chamber music gives us an opportunity to collaborate with one another more directly, and with more individual perspective, than the orchestra format allows. This sharing of knowledge also helps us generate collective force as an orchestra. Chamber music brings to the foreground a dense type of musical responsibility which we need to be able to count on from ourselves and our colleagues to make our orchestra work."
From medieval fortress to modern high-rise Chamber music is, at the same time, the MCO’s access card to venues like the "Dortmunder U", or like the jazz club in Ferrara located in the Torrione San Giovanni, a tower in the medieval city wall. The round stone walls of the Torrione form a room that seats only about 300 people and a stage that comfortably bears a quintet - and yet the MCO has a regular concert series here, playing chamber music of this size with ever-changing ensembles, in an extraordinary and intimate atmosphere. The first Mahler Chamber Soloists (the name under which all MCO chamber events are played) concert was tested out here about three years ago, and it was such a special event that it developed into a regular series with at least two concerts each season, programmed in collaboration with Ferrara Musica. Chamber music programmes are developed cooperatively with residence partners in NRW and Ferrara, where regular series can be initiated. Chamber music concerts of many formats and serving the function at hand are also conceived in dialogue with any number of other concert promoters, even those where the MCO is present perhaps just once a year. It allows the MCO to make its presence felt more strongly in a given place, and it can expand the experience of the regular orchestral programme. "It gives us a chance to approach pieceswholly - chamber music pieces are very often studies for or relatives of the works in the orchestral repertoire. Knowing the chamber music of particular composers can very quickly give a perspective on the mood and construction of their larger pieces", Tim explains.
No longer the orchestra, but just as much the MCO In Essen, for example, both concerts of the 2010/11 Brahms cycle were enhanced by a "third act"; after the two symphonies and a break in which the audience was invited to enjoy a glass of wine in the foyer, a further work by Brahms was played in a smaller formation. The audience was invited to move closer to the stage, the lights were adjusted to focus on the ring of players, and a sextet or quintet by the composer explored Brahms’ compositional language in a different dimension. The chamber piece played following the Fourth Symphony was the G major Quintet op. 111, made up of sketches for a fifth symphony: a complete exploration of Brahms’ symphonic universe made possible by the inclusion of a pared-down ensemble size. This is no longer the orchestra, but it is just as much the MCO. In February when the MCO travelled to Toulouse, seven musicians arrived a day early for additional rehearsals and prepared Beethoven’s Septet for strings and winds for a "pre-concert" session including an introductory talk by a musicologist. In March, on the initiative of the Philharmonie Essen, the MCO was invited to programme a chamber music concert for a particular room at the city’s renowned Folkwang Museum. Works by contemporary American composers were chosen to match the 20th century American art on display. In September, Mahler Chamber Soloists will play a contemporary programme developed for the space at the Alter Wartesaal in Cologne, and this summer in Lucerne, Mahler Chamber Soloists play chamber music under the motto "Insomnia", in keeping with this year’s festival theme "Night". "Given that we have just about every instrument on board, the repertoire available to us is vast. And we can play things that might not often get a hearing", points out Eoin Andersen, one of the members of the MCO Board responsible for the development of chamber music programming.
"You play who you are" The latest element in the palette of MCO chamber music activities is the combination of chamber music and symphonic works on the main programme of a tour or concert project. So for example the inclusion of Prokofiev’s Quintet op. 39 and Britten’s Sinfonietta for five winds and five strings in a programme in NRW this fall that otherwise includes Prokofiev’s Symphonie Classique and Britten’s Phaedra - two pieces for smaller, conductor-less ensembles slotted in among pieces for the whole orchestra. In this way, the different facets of the MCO become apparent in the course of a single programme - and in an orchestra made up of so many distinct and strong musical personalities, some of them have the chance to introduce themselves to audiences in more detail. "You play who you are, as the saying goes", says Eoin, and in playing chamber music, "one can think, analyze, have a voice, be heard" in ways that are different and complementary to the experience of playing in the orchestra. The highest concentration yet of these many facets will be demonstrated when the MCO comes to Berlin in November 2011 for an evening at the performance space Radialsystem V. In addition to symphonic works conducted by Teodor Currentzis, a number of chamber ensembles will play in various rooms in the building, offering everything from meditative listening on yoga mats to music accompanied by dance to a more informal MCO lounge at the end. It has never been easy to find a satisfying definition for the prism that is MCO - it is the sum of the innumerable ensembles that can be formed of it, and of their performances in so many locations, on so many occasions. But it is also each one of these ensembles and performances on its own - each one is different, but each one is completely MCO.