On October 17, 1969, mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, violist Walter Trampler, and pianist and artistic director Charles Wadsworth marked an important occasion for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. No, not the inauguration of their brand-new hall or the opening concert of the recently formed society; that all happened back in September of that year. It was a well-received performance of New People, a freshly written song cycle by the American composer Michael Colgrass—the first of a steady stream of works commissioned by CMS to receive its world premiere on the stage of Alice Tully Hall.
In a New York Times interview that month, Wadsworth expressed pride in CMS’s mission to place newly sponsored music in concerts alongside works of earlier eras, believing that he could “best serve contemporary composers by presenting their music in the context of great music of the past.” This was a two-way street; the instrumentations and stylistic qualities of newly written pieces fed back into Wadsworth’s decisions about how to program canonical and lesser-known works from history. Imperative to his curation was the idea that the artists stood at the center of concerts—that the approach to tone and timbre of players or ensembles is a primary object of musical attention, and that the varied composers on a program can show different facets of a particular artistic core.
A performer-centric attitude permeates the approach that the Chamber Music Society takes to commissioning new music today. “What’s wonderful about the commission planning that we do at CMS is that we do it with performers in the loop,” current Co-Artistic Director David Finckel told me. “I would say 90 percent of new works start as requests from performers, who come to us with names of composers whose music they’re dying to play, asking if we can make it happen. When a great performer comes to us with that kind of passion, we know that the piece is going to have the best interpretation at its birth that it could possibly have."
The composers commissioned to write music for the Chamber Music Society in the 2022–23 season described many different ways in which their music was influenced by the sounds and specific strengths of those for whom they were writing. For Julia Adolphe, who is composing a new piano trio for the Sitkovetsky Trio that will see its first performance on a NewMilestones concert in February, the unique approaches of the players in the group has proved crucial to her compositional imagination.
“With chamber music, often you know who the players are going to be, and you can listen to recordings,” Adolphe told me. “I’ve really enjoyed thinking about the unique things that the Sitkovetsky Trio can convey. The pianist, Wu Qian, has a gorgeous bell-like tone. Her high piano is very sparkling, it’s crisp and clear. So there are a lot of bell-like chimes throughout the piece. [Violinist] Alexander Sitkovetsky’s middle and low register is very lush, sonorous, and Romantic-sounding. And I was really drawn to cellist Isang Enders’s pale, gentle timbre. He often has a full, blooming cello sound, but he is able to make the cello sound very light and delicate, a sound that’s hard to achieve, and so I’m trying to work with that as well.”
Eric Nathan has written a solo piano piece called "My Grandfather Played the Piano," to be premiered by Gilbert Kalish on a recital in March. It’s a synthesis of Nathan’s memories of his grandfather, Paul—a composition that blends elements of Baroque styles, ragtime, and more modern sound worlds. He wished to capture Kalish’s particular brand of understated emotional intelligence in the new work. “His playing is full of restraint and wisdom. It’s a carefully thought-out lyricism, and I think that approach is almost everywhere in this piece.”
When planning "My Grandfather Played the Piano," Nathan also thought about the works of J. S. Bach and Charles Ives that would appear alongside his own music on Kalish’s recital. “In Bach, there’s a sense of order and a real craft; the melodies have this deeply wrought intellect behind them. There are also moments in my piece where there’s a chorale that comes out of me thinking about Ives. I was trying to imbue the melodies in the piece with a sense that they are very lyrical but also well-crafted— almost like a puzzle—because this is a combination that I always find in Gil’s approach both to Bach and to Ives.”
"Hypha," a new work by Zosha Di Castri for violin, cello, clarinet, and keyboards that was premiered at a New Milestones concert in December, features sudden changes in instrumental technique for the violin that demand great clarity and commitment from the player. Back in 2020, Di Castri helped to prepare a CMS performance of "Sprung Testament for Violin and Piano" featuring violinist Kristin Lee, who also played in the premiere of "Hypha." The composer “was struck by Lee’s virtuosity, her sensitivity to timbre, and immediate intuitive understanding of my music . . . . I knew I could trust her to faithfully interpret these swift shifts between filament-like playing techniques, as well as more restless and exacting textures, with great timbral nuance, and I think this influenced my string writing in Hypha.”
Di Casti told me that she appreciates "the democratic structure of making chamber music. There is a directness and an attuned listening that one doesn't always find with large ensembles." It's an intimately cooperative, collaborative form of music making— a quality that allows for trust and exchange between performer and composer and that fruitfully relates to the ecological inspiration for Hypha.
"The forms, bark roots, and majesty of the trees were on my mind when composing this work. I was struck by professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard's radical observation that cooperation might be as central to evolution as competition. Though a tree may stand tall and look strong and independent on the surface, its health is very likely made possible by this complex system of fungi and roots connecting it to neighboring trees beneath the surface. It struck me that this was a beautiful metaphor for life and for making chamber music."
Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.