The young Asian women—a pianist, cellist and violinist—glance at each other, laughing nervously.
"What does that mean?" he asks. "You rehearsed, right?"
"OK, let's see what we've got."
Kannen's studio is just the right size for the trio, who are beginning their second coaching session of the semester. There are homey touches in his studio, like a family photo, Persian-style rug, cello poster, and a cover of a Scientific American on a bulletin board that asks, "Is the Universe Out of Tune?"
Kannen leans back as the group launches into a performance of the Saint-Saens Piano Trio in F, Op. 18. He listens, often with his hand on his chin, his face intent but other-wise inscrutable.
The students are clearly skilled and their performance is pleasant but perfunctory. Well into the piece, they stop abruptly.
"What happened?" Kannen asks, surprised.
There's an awkward pause and then the violinist gestures apologetically toward her sheet music. "We spent a lot of time trying to get together on this part," she says.
"It's not like this is Brahms, or Beethoven, where you might need me to help you work it out," Kannen says firmly. "There's not much to puzzle out here. You three can figure this out, but you have to make the commitment. I feel like you're reading it, not playing it. You're sleepwalking."
To demonstrate, Kannen, a cellist himself, slips into the cellist's seat and begins to play.
"You need to interact with one another," he says, gesturing toward the violinist. "You say something and then we respond. Don't go without me." He plays a phrase and then leans toward the other players when it's time to hand it off. "See, we talk," Kannen says, as the students respond to his prompting, both visually and musically.
The difference is detectable immediately.
Chamber music ensembles come in a variety of musical combinations with a rich repertoire that can range from classical to radically avant garde. Traditionally, the form is limited to the number of musicians who could fit comfortably into a palace "chamber," generally no more than about eight to 10. "It's a mode of musical expression that involves intimate one-on-one communication between the musicians and audience," notes Kannen, "as opposed to the larger, more public experience of an opera or orchestral concert."
Because chamber musicians play without a conductor, they have more interpretive freedom—requiring them to communicate well in order to maintain "expressive unity," Kannen says. "For a string player, playing in a chamber group can be a more individual and personal experience than playing in an orchestral string section, yet it still requires the musicians to merge their musical interpretations. And whether [our graduates] end up playing in a chamber group, an orchestra, or working on movie scores, that's some-thing every musician should learn to do."
Kannen's sentiment is echoed by Margaret Lioi, CEO of Chamber Music America. Solid conservatory preparation in chamber music "is absolutely essential, more essential now, perhaps, than it ever has been before," she says, given the large number of talented musicians coming out of conservatories and the limited number of orchestral positions available. "What else can you do to make a life for yourself in music?" asks Lioi. "Chamber music is such an excellent option because you can become an entrepreneur and make opportunities for yourself."
The Peabody program encourages across-the-board student involvement in chamber music and requires undergraduates to take a chamber music course (really more of a group lesson or coaching session) during four out of their total of eight semesters. They can also participate in master classes and performance opportunities, both inside and outside Peabody, and "hear some of the finest chamber ensembles in the world," Kannen says, both at Peabody and in concerts throughout the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area.
During master classes, respected musicians open up their coaching sessions to the public. In recent years, musicians who have performed and conducted master classes at Peabody include the Tokyo String Quartet, the Brentano String Quartet (for which Kannen once played), Peabody faculty member Leon Fleisher, and members of the Takacs and Vermeer quartets.
"When you're involved in the struggle of playing, it can be hard to see the big picture," says Kannen. "But when you can watch someone who is highly respected in the field coach someone else, you can gain insights that you wouldn't if you were playing yourself."
At the start of every year, Kannen and his wife, chamber music faculty member Maria Lambros, listen to all the students at their ensemble auditions, for the purpose of playing musical matchmaker. Who has the same skill level? Who would be compatible? Then they tackle the monumental challenge of grouping musicians together in the hope that they gel. This past year, they matched about 100 students in small ensembles.
At the graduate level, where accomplished students at Peabody can earn a Graduate Performance Diploma (GPD) in Chamber Music, "it's less about playing together and more about delving deeply into the music," Kannen explains. "At the graduate level, you've mastered the basic skills, and it's really about the pursuit of a higher degree of excellence."
Violinist Sonya Chung is one such graduate student. Chung, who won the Grace Clagett Ranney Endowed Memorial Prize for chamber music from Peabody, describes the chamber music literature as "limitless," allowing her to explore a range of music from baroque and traditional Celtic, to Messiaen, Leon Kirchner, and Paul Lansky.
Chung studied violin as a child but moved away from music during her teenage years. She entered Harvard University in 1999 to study philosophy but also played in the Harvard/Radcliffe Orchestra. Soon, she found that she was spending most of her time with fellow musicians, so she began playing in small ensembles just for fun, as a way to take a break from studying or relax after a dinner party. "It was just something very natural to do with friends," she says. Before long, playing chamber music had become her passion.
During Chung's first year at Peabody she played consistently with one string quartet. "[It] was a great fit and very collegial," she says. "It couldn't have been better. I have great memories of that group." When some members of the group graduated, she looked for other opportunities, which allowed her to experiment with different instrumental combinations and even play with faculty. "In a way, I miss not growing with a single group, but it's been fun to experiment with different arrangements," she says, "It helps me to broaden my interests and get to know non-string players."
Once at Peabody, she met faculty like pianist Seth Knopp and his wife, violinist Violaine Melançon, members of The Peabody Trio, Peabody's ensemble-in-residence—a group known for championing new music. They "lived and breathed chamber music," says Chung appreciatively. "Violaine's love for chamber music is very visceral and The Peabody Trio performances are so engaging. There is always great dialogue in the master classes, and, clearly, they care so much about the students."
Chung hasn't focused yet on finding a career chamber group. She's just been enjoying playing with other "serious but open-minded people," including faculty, who she says have helped her learn how to work with others and have "provided great feedback."
Faculty members encourage students like Chung to pursue chamber music opportunities beyond Peabody's walls. Last summer, Chung was accepted into the Tanglewood Music Festival, the oldest and most acclaimed music festival in the United States, held in Lenox, Mass. The previous summer, she had attended the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival in Amherst, Mass., where Knopp serves as artistic director. During Yellow Barn's five-week program, students and faculty rehearse daily and perform in roughly 25 public chamber music concerts, in Amherst and in and around nearby Putney, Vt.
Tanglewood is about 90 minutes from Yellow Barn, so Chung attended some Yellow Barn concerts last summer. "I never walked away without feeling transported or transcended," she says. "They are that moving. Seth has an uncanny talent for attracting students to Yellow Barn who are not only technically proficient and knowledgeable but also exciting to watch." The program is highly competitive and increasingly popular (five times as many students auditioned for Yellow Barn last year as six years ago) and, as a result, draws some of the finest musicians from the country's top conservatories.
Knopp relishes finding and nurturing talent through the festival experience, and he believes that learning to play with others is one of the most vital elements of that experience. "Most faculty will tell you that the most important thing a musician can do, out-side of private lessons, is learn to play with other people," he says, "because, in the vast majority of cases, that is what they will spend their lives doing. You need to know how to express your ideas to others in a persuasive way, understand other people's ideas, and help those ideas come to life."
He has worked with Yellow Barn for 10 years now and says the festival is characterized by a "sense of community" that transcends artistic inhibitions and encourages cohesiveness and experimentation. For students, he says, it's a place "where you can apply what you've learned in a freer environment and find your musical voice."
Chung agrees. "What I remember most vividly is the strong sense of spirit and the empathetic community. It's a remarkable vision and place. I have quite a collection of experiences that will inspire and stay with me for the rest of my life."
During rehearsal for a fall benefit for the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association, members of The Monument Piano Trio—violinist Igor Yuzefovich, pianist Michael Sheppard, and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski—work with three guest percussionists to perfect Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15, Op 141a, arranged for piano trio and percussion.
The Trio members, all Peabody alumni, are professional musicians who perform together regularly, most often as the artists-in-residence for An die Musik, just down the street from Peabody at 409 N. Charles St. The CD store features a cozy performance space for the trio, and the concerts they give there regularly sell out.
But on this particular evening, the trio will perform in Peabody's Friedberg Hall, along with guest soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme.
During rehearsal with the percussionists, most of the interaction focuses on volume, interplay, and pacing. "These notes are as short as you can make them," percussionist Brian Prechtl tells Sheppard as they work through the Shostakovich. "Now, from 48, take it down a notch."
There is some joking around, but for the most part, the mood is serious. They decide to slow down one section, but then express concern that they may have slowed it down too much, getting "gun shy."
Clearly, The Monument Piano Trio musicians are used to working together. "Michael, Dariusz, and I are all very opinionated musicians," says Yuzefovich, assistant concertmaster for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "We can argue about one measure for 45 minutes, but at some point, you have to work out a compromise."
Later, Yuzefovich and Skoraczewski (the BSO's assistant principal cello) confer as Skoraczewski taps out a rhythm on his thigh. Sometimes, they will look at each other, nod in agreement, and grin. Over the years they've learned to communicate nonverbally, reading each other's body language and interpreting what Yuzefovich calls, "the glance that conveys a thousand words."
When The Monument Piano Trio first formed in 2004, it was almost an experiment, says Yuzefovich. His previous attempts to find a chamber music group had fallen by the wayside. But this time, everything just seemed to click. "You have to be married to your group," he says. "And you have to find people who speak the same language musically."
Clearly, strong chamber music groups don't happen overnight. And very few music groups can rely solely on chamber music to make a living. Witness The Monument Piano Trio. Though the Trio's players enjoy the stability—and steady exposure—of the residency at An die Musik, the six-concert series doesn't afford benefits or offer enough money to live on. For that, Yuzefovich and Skoraczewski rely on their full-time positions at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Michael Sheppard on national tours as a soloist and guest artist with symphony orchestras.
"How many can really make a living as a chamber group?" says Lioi, of Chamber Music America. "Even historically, there was only a very small number—maybe five [with a full-time touring schedule]."
But Lioi isn't pessimistic about the prospect for chamber musicians. In fact, just the opposite.
"The demand for high-quality music is very great," she says, "and with all of the different kinds of chamber music now being written and performed by composers and musicians, the types of chamber music groups have expanded exponentially in the past decade."
For musicians with an entrepreneurial spirit, she says, "there are an infinite number of performance opportunities you can create for yourself."
Kannen is equally upbeat. Despite the financial and lifestyle challenges, Kannen describes the last 20 years as a "Golden Age" of chamber music—with "an explosion of interest among talented young musicians" and more chamber music performances than ever before. From that perspective, he says, "these are exciting times."