Why don’t chamber orchestras get their due?
As he returns to the English Chamber Orchestra, leading chamber orchestra conductor Roberto Forés Veses insists that small can mean perfectly-formed
When people talk about the greatest orchestras in the world, it’s usually the same candidates – the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra and the rest – but it’s also usually the same kind of candidates.
Meaning full, big-sound symphony orchestras. Chamber orchestras, those smaller and more nimble ensembles that tend to number up to about 40 musicians compared to their big siblings’ hundred-plus, rarely get a look in. Even the best of them.
And, as a conductor who has spent much of his career standing in front of the world’s leading chamber orchestras, I can say with certainty that the best of them are the best of the best.
Let’s start with why chamber orchestras don’t get their due. Promoters, often the media and concert-goers as well, have the mindset that size matters (and even the music colleges don’t prioritise chamber orchestras). What is the most popular repertoire? Huge symphonies by Mahler and Shostakovich. Beethoven played with a big sound. Everything is pushed as 'epic' or 'spectacular'.
It’s not surprising, if you consider what’s happened in the history of music. As cities built large halls and threw resources at them, composers had free rein. In Europe, for instance, there were the spa towns that demanded cultural activities for their leisure clientele – like Baden-Baden in Austria, which invited Berlioz to run its music festival and encouraged him to write big pieces for big concerts, no expense spared.
And what Berlioz and a few others got, all the composers started to demand. Fast forward to the late twentieth century and up to today, and we’ve had decades of film composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, themselves influenced by the enormous musical palettes of Mahler, Bruckner and Prokofiev. And so audiences and promoters alike are trained to expect that bigger is better.
I’m not saying that symphony orchestras aren’t vital, and I conduct many of them and love doing so. And there are things you can achieve with more musicians in terms of texture, colour and scope that are important. But.
When you have a smaller group of musicians, a chamber orchestra, every musician is like a soloist. You can hear all of them individually. Every single one counts – and counts a lot. That makes enormous demands on each musician, and requires a lot of intensive preparation. And then, beyond all of that, every musician must articulate in the same way, almost breathing as one.
It’s also harder on the conductor! Because the level in a chamber orchestra is usually so high, the musicians are completely ready and eager to dive into the most profound or minute details of the music from first thing in the morning, so you have to be right there with them. Ready to analyse, ready to insist if needed, ready to inspire. You’re all chasing perfection from the very first moment.
Everything in a chamber orchestra is so transparent and clear, every detail tells (and any technical mistake or even lapse in style is completely exposed!), so you can stop and spend five minutes working on one single bar, on the intonation, on the phrasing. You can’t do that in the same way with a big symphony orchestra, because between all that mass of sound you simply can’t hear the same level of detail.
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And here’s another truth. Listening to a huge sound is, well, easier. You can sit back and it washes over you and that in itself is an impressive thing. Chamber orchestras, without that advantage, have to work harder to make the audience sit forward and, as it were, come to them. And the best chamber orchestras work harder than you would believe to make that happen. But the rewards, when it all works, are indescribable.
For many years I was Music Director of one of the best chamber orchestras in France, the Orchestre National d’Auvergne. There I saw the whole process first-hand.
When I took over, I needed a few years just to ‘put the machine together’. This meant making sure that the whole group had more than a common goal: they had a blind understanding of one another, something that ran between the musicians themselves and then could connect through the conductor.
This is not easy to achieve, to say the least, but once you get it with a chamber orchestra they are magical. And really, that’s almost what it seems like: magic!
And when you discover what a chamber orchestra can reveal, you never forget it. When I was growing up, the Beethoven symphonies meant the grandeur and mass of Herbert von Karajan’s large-scale recordings. And then one day I conducted a chamber orchestra in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony at the Salle Gaveau in Paris and I discovered for the first time thousands of details, hundreds of colours that were there in the score.
It had a huge impact on me. I suddenly understood just how much intensity and joy we could bring with this music.
And now there’s a chance for audiences to discover chamber orchestras anew. After the pandemic we saw many promoters wanting to programme famous composers to tempt audiences back, but with smaller works to keep costs down. Famous symphonies by Beethoven and Mozart, for instance – the natural ground for chamber orchestras. And, by the way, just as symphony orchestras play works created for smaller groups (which is fine!) it also became acceptable to adapt larger works for chamber orchestras.
The UK has some fantastic chamber orchestras that its audiences should support and cherish. I had a wonderful experience last year conducting the English Chamber Orchestra – such a fabulous group – for the first time.
We played a Mozart symphony, a Beethoven overture and the Bruch Violin Concerto – all repertoire they’ve played a thousand times – and they were so motivated and determined, it was incredibly impressive. There was also a new work and in a very short time of rehearsal they played it as well as they did the Mozart!
That was a blast – and true musicianship. At the end of the concert the audience were so enthusiastic, it just underlined for me yet again how important it is that we get the big public back to chamber orchestra concerts, to let them rediscover the strength and vitality and purity and joy and eternal freshness that this kind of orchestra can bring. So three cheers for the chamber orchestras!
Three chamber orchestra recordings every music lover should hear
Haydn: Symphony No.101, ‘The Clock’
Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood (Decca)
The way Hogwood and his musicians approach this music is a revelation of how to play it and how to understand it. The sound they achieved with original instruments was very special, while they work in such a detailed way – this recording opened a door for me, and hugely influenced my approach to textures, even without original instruments.
Beethoven: Symphonies 1 and 2
English Chamber Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony)
This recording turned me on to classical music! My parents would play it in the car when I was a young teenager, and I’ve always loved it. Even listening to it all these years later, there’s so much energy, such a great spirit to the music-making, it’s entirely lovable.
Mozart: Symphony No.41, ‘Jupiter’
Danish Chamber Orchestra / Adam Fischer (Da Capo)
Another wonderful chamber orchestra is the Danish Chamber Orchestra, and the way they’ve evolved under different Music Directors has been fascinating. Adam Fischer encourages a very theatrical and atmospheric approach, which I certainly respond to in Mozart.
Roberto Forés Veses is at London’s Cadogan Hall with the English Chamber Orchestra on Sunday 4 June. The repertoire includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 'Eroica'. Here are two of his own Beethoven recordings, including Symphony No. 7 and an ICMA Award-nominated recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Alena Baeva.
Two chamber orchestra recordings from Roberto Forés Veses
Beethoven Symphony No 7, Orchestre National d’Auvergne (ONA Live)
Beethoven Violin Concerto, Orchestre National d’Auvergne (ONA Live)
The concert also includes works by Butterworth, Ravel and Delius. See here for more information.
Top image: Robert Forés Veses with the English Chamber Orchestra. Pic: Colin Sheen