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Chamber Music by Immersion

Ten days and over 50 hours… That was the time spent earlier in July with seven incredibly focused and talented young people and some esteemed colleagues on music by Mozart, Arensky and Brahms at our North Carolina Chamber Music Institute (NCCMI) Summer Intensive Workshop.

We launched our workshop on a Sunday afternoon in the lovely and intimate Brown Chapel at Edenton Street United Methodist Church. The stained glass windows in the room glowed in jewel tones, but the students’ first reading of the Brahms Sextet in B Flat Major seemed lacking in color.  Playing with hesitation and stumbling a bit through the complicated rhythmic passages, they seemed intimidated.  I asked a question about the “swing” or “feel” of the harmonic rhythm. “Is this music in three. Or in one?” A question answered with mostly silence. And so we began.

Each morning of camp found us in the much-larger sanctuary, intoning scales together like monks in an ancient church. The pattern of our scale practice changed, depending upon the daily goals which my colleague, North Carolina Symphony violinist Eric McCracken, and I identified. Each day, we became more complex in our warmups, building group awareness of rhythm, sound and pitch.

Intensive work on the piece itself followed, with much talk about the Sonata Allegro construction of this gorgeous, beloved piece and its place in the life of Johannes Brahms.  We worked on breathing together; on changing mood and flow; on intonation on widely-spaced climactic chords. We focused on pairs and trio groupings to clean up the textural elements, and by using musical tools like vibrato, and changing bow speed and pressure, we learned to express character in a musical theme.

Later in the week, we held some very special sessions with other colleagues. Through the miracle of modern technology, we were able to a present a FaceTime Master Class with my brother Doug Beilman, a violinist with the New Zealand String Quartet who was in Canada that day. Doug’s real time comments to the students were on a very high level, a result of his three decades as a professional chamber musician. Students who had trouble playing their own part on Sunday now were effortlessly playing while listening and interacting with the others.

There were detailed sectional rehearsals for violins, violas and cellos. Symphony colleagues Petra Berényi and Rebekah Binford joined us – Petra working with the violas, and Rebekah giving a masterful class on the Brahms.  Waltye Rasulala coached the students in stage deportment.  On Friday morning, we held a “Meet the Composer” event with Chrissy Cain Ricker. NCCMI faculty and alumni members joined together in a performance of Intergalactic, a brand-new piano quartet written for NCCMI. Chrissy led a discussion with the students about how music often tells a story. 

Each afternoon, we broke into two smaller groups. One group worked on the Mozart String Quartet No. 20 in D Major, K.499, I. Allegretto with Eric McCracken. I took part in the fun of tackling the Arensky Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky with the other group, since the piece involved a second cello part.

Over the weekend, students played three outreach performances, one at The Oaks at Whitaker Glen and two church services at Church of the Nativity. We could see the students sitting taller, as they gained confidence in themselves and each other.  As the second week began, we watched a video of our Saturday concert. Everyone had a chance to contribute to the discussion afterward.

Finally, it was Tuesday. We did a light reading of the music and NCCMI co-founder Jimmy Gilmore entertained us with articles from old Etude magazines. To the wide-eyed students, I mentioned that they are in a musical sense, great-great grandchildren of Brahms; my teacher’s teacher Diran Alexanian had worked and played with Brahms himself.

Then, it was time for the concert. We had a full house including family, North Carolina Symphony staff and colleagues, teachers, and friends from Edenton Street United Methodist. Listening to the students backstage, I couldn’t help but feel very touched and proud. Peeking out, I saw our musicians moving with confidence and conviction through those same passages that had caused so much frustration and hesitation in the beginning.  Using body language and eye contact, they communicated as a team. Moving as one, they answered my first question of the workshop with authority and a sense of beauty.

NCCMI Summer Intensive Workshop
Jody Miller and Jaewon Jung, violins
Amanda Jewell and Akul Narang, violas
Gabriel Ramos and Kaitlyn Boyd, cellos
Moonsu Kim, student intern and violinist
Elizabeth Beilman, Executive Director and Lead Teacher
Eric McCracken, Assistant lead teacher
Douglas Beilman and Rebekah Binford, master classes
Petra Berenyi, Jimmy Gilmore and Waltye Rasulala, teachers
Chrissy Cain Ricker, visiting composer
Kevin Holland and Edenton Street United Methodist Church

The North Carolina Chamber Music Institute was founded by Symphony Associate Principal cellist Elizabeth Beilman and her husband, retired Principal Symphony clarinet Jimmy Gilmore.  The program began three years ago with three small ensembles. By fall of 2015, its first year as a 501(c)(3) organization, NCCMI had a total of 49 students in 11 groups.  During the academic year program, students attend 16 coaching sessions (including classes with many NCS musicians) and an equal number of student-led rehearsals. They perform outreach concerts for retirement communities and schools, as well as formal concerts and master classes. Through the generosity of Kevin Holland and Edenton Street United Methodist Church, the NCCMI Summer Intensive Workshop has a welcoming home. As Ms. Beilman puts it, “Participants are given a ‘chamber music immersion’ camp, the best way for students to become fluent in this intimate, direct musical language.”

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