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May 18, 2016

Chamber Music on the Rise

By David Foley

Eighth BlackbirdClassical

The chamber group eighth blackbird performs with the percussion group Third Coast Percussion on March 18, 2017.

Music in the 21st Century is evolving. Performers are trying to find new ways to engage and excite audiences. From collaborating with visual artists to performing from memory, musicians are working to distinguish themselves in a competitive field. Orchestral and symphonic music have always been at the forefront of classical music, but chamber music has recently been gaining a lot of popularity among concert-goers.

As a music student at the University of Michigan, I’ve crossed paths with many rising stars as well as artists who have “made it” in the music community. So, I’ve had a few conversations in and out of school about how classical music is evolving and the attendant positive and negative changes.

Why chamber music has momentum


From a programmatic standpoint, small ensembles can play a wider variety of shorter pieces that cater to more musical tastes, while a large-scale symphony might have 1 to 3 pieces on the entire hour-and-a-half long program and appeal to only one musical genre.

In my opinion, attending a symphony orchestra concert can be very difficult for families and people who might not regularly listen to classical music. When I was younger, I remember squirming around, making a ruckus, and being unruly for long symphony concerts, but I think chamber ensembles can be more accessible to a wider range of people.


Chamber groups can choose to play transcriptions of famous works, that range from the medieval era to post-tonal melodramas such as Pierrot Lunaire, a piece so influential that it has shaped the concept of how we listen to and perceive chamber ensemble today.

Many chamber ensembles choose to include a dramatic or comedic aspect into their programs, which draws audience members in and allows them to listen to classical music in new ways.

Above is the renowned Mnozil Brass ensemble performing “Lonely Boy,” with an added dramatic element.

Newer chamber ensemble configurations don’t always have a list of standard repertoire; these groups can often hit roadblocks when working to progress as an ensemble. And one of the greatest resources new ensembles have right now is the multitude of living composers who want to help define the standard repertoire, an effect which is also beneficial for the progression of classical music. As much as I love going to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform standard repertoire at the highest level, I also get just as excited to see a group such as the Kronos Quartet perform a program of new works by up-and-coming composers I didn’t even know existed.


From a financial view, a chamber ensemble can be comprised from two to a handful performers, and funding a group of this size is easier. Fewer people are employed by the ensemble, so ticket prices don’t have to be as high to generate a successful performance. Chamber ensembles can also perform in smaller and more intimate venues.

Chamber groups aren’t necessarily bound to performing in a “stuffy” symphony hall. As fun as it may be to dress up for the occasion and spend time in a beautiful space, sometimes I just want to hear good music in a more casual and less expensive setting. Chamber group instrumentation is also not set in stone, Options for sound concept, tone color, and blend are unlimited; it really just depends on what the ensemble is trying to achieve.

Chamber music is paving the new path for classical music

One of the most sought after chamber groups in the world, eighth blackbird, is setting the bar for how chamber music can and should be performed. The four-time Grammy Award winning ensemble puts on an array of exciting and diverse programs that attract audience members of all varieties.

eighth blackbird was founded when the original members were still in school at the Oberlin Conservatory and consists of six members and on the following instruments: violin/viola, cello, piano, percussion, clarinets, and flutes, which is the same instrumentation of the Pierrot Lunaire configuration. The ensemble can achieve a wide range of tone colors and sounds and is constantly commissioning and performing new works. The ensemble interacts with the audience and provides information about the works they perform to make the concerts more accessible to people who may not be well versed in classical or contemporary music. eighth blackbird’s visit during the 2016-17 season will be the group’s third performance with UMS.

Eighth Blackbird
eighth blackbird. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For this concert, eighth blackbird is teaming up with Third Coast Percussion, an exciting Chicago based percussion ensemble, to perform the instrumental work Music for 18 Musicians (1976) by Steve Reich. If you have never heard the music of Steve Reich, then prepare to have your mind blown. Reich incorporates a minimalist technique in his compositional style, where notes are repeated in an ostinato-like style and the harmonies move very glacially, but you become immersed in the ocean of sound and get swept away. Here is an example of a similar work by Reich: Double Sextet, a Pulitzer Prize winning piece which was commissioned by eighth blackbird.

Performing minimalist music can be mentally and physically straining because it is very repetitive and changes only slightly over time, which can catch the performers off-guard. There are also very few playing breaks in this type of music. The compositions of Steve Reich are very exciting and this all-star group of performers makes for a concert you do not want to miss.

As a musician, I think chamber music has a bright future. There are more and more opportunities arising for chamber groups: including local and national chamber concert series, chamber music competitions for all level players, as well as collegiate degrees that are offered in chamber music at schools as prestigious as the University of Michigan. I think that many musicians are evolving and revolutionizing their playing and how they connect with audiences that are constantly changing. This is a very exciting time for chamber music and I’m happy that I get to tag along for the ride.

Hear Music for 18 Musicians at the Steve Reich @ 80 concert with eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion.


From Eugene, Oregon, David Foley is completing his Master's Degree in Saxophone at the University of Michigan. An active performer of new works and transcriptions, David enjoys working as a soloist and in chamber groups of multiple instrumentation. David is also very excited to be working at UMS.