By Jenny Neyman
First, the overture, in which they meet:
They see each other across a crowded room, pass each other in the hallway, then are introduced by a mutual acquaintance.
There’s something intriguing about each other. They talk enough to realize their commonalities. He seems interested. She contemplates bringing him home to introduce to her friends. He could be just the one she’s looking for.
But they neglect to exchange last names, emails or phone numbers. Time passes. The lack of contact is disappointing.
Were this the introductory strains of a romantic duet, that might have been the finale — it seemed promising but logistical stars got crossed and ah, well, there are other fish in the sea.
But romance wasn’t the goal of this pairing. This is the start of a relationship that can be even more challenging to form. She is Emily Grossman, a musician on the Kenai Peninsula longing to expand her repertoire. And he, Kevin Charlestream, is a rare catch, indeed, in Alaska — a cellist interested in chamber music willing to go out of his way to perform it.
“We’ve been kind of cello-deficient on the Kenai Peninsula, and there’s a whole world or repertoire for chamber music that’s just not accessible without it,” Grossman said.
Though the peninsula is graced with many accomplished musicians, cellists with enough free time and interest to devote to chamber music are few and far between, yet that instrument is a necessity for the bulk of the repertoire written for various iterations of string ensembles. That effectively hamstrings the ensemble possibilities for local violinists, like Grossman, and pianists, like Maria Allison.
“It’s been something that’s been on all of our minds. We meet new people moving into the community and ask, ‘Do you play cello? No? Oh,’” Allison said.
As well as being active in the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, Grossman travels back and forth to perform with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra. Going on two years ago she caught sight of Charlestream, a relatively new-to-town addition to the orchestra.
Her desire to find a cellist interested in chamber music was widely, almost jokingly, known, at home, to the point where friends told her they’d pray for her to find one.
“I was completely oblivious of all this,” Charlestream said.
Grossman noticed the new cellist in the halls but isn’t one for overly forward introductions, such as, “Are you the cellist of my dreams?”
In the symphony break room one day, a mutual acquaintance introduced she and Charlestream. They chatted a bit, and he said the words she’d been hoping for years to hear.
“He said something about wanting to play chamber music, and he sounded interested,” Grossman said. “And I got very excited. I posted an update on my Facebook, ‘I met a cellist!’”
But they didn’t exchange contact information. Grossman later requested his information through the symphony office, to no avail. With that year’s symphony season over, she feared having lost her chance at a potential chamber music cellist.
“I regretted that this whole time, that I didn’t get his last name or anything,” she said.
But then, when the symphony resumed, there was Charlestream, with his interest in chamber music and memory of Grossman intact. He approached her and asked about coming to Soldotna to rehearse. On March 7, Charlestream, Grossman and Allison will perform as a trio as part of Musica Borealis, a concert presented at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.
“He’s the first person I met who was willing to make the drive down here and commit to rehearsing, regardless of weather and circumstance. It has taken a lot of effort on his part to be involved in this,” Grossman said.
For Charlestream, the effort is worth the opportunity.
“Chamber music is worth it. It’s worth the drive, for sure,” he said.
When he moved to Anchorage from Boston about three years ago, it was for a job as an aircraft mechanic. He didn’t even bring his cello, though he had been a musician since age 3, growing up playing chamber music with his family. By the time he was 5, he was performing internationally as a soloist with the New England Symphonic Ensemble, the resident orchestra at Carnegie Hall for Mid-America Productions, as the youngest member to perform with the orchestra. He spent his childhood performing extensively throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the U.S.
Upon realizing there was more musical opportunity in Alaska than he’d expected, he retrieved his cello and joined ASO, but hadn’t managed to find a venue for chamber music.
“There are a lot of musicians (in Anchorage), but everyone’s busy,” he said. “Everyone’s busy here (on the peninsula), too, but it takes the right combination of people to make a good chamber group. Just because someone’s a good musician doesn’t mean it necessarily works in a group.”
Just because the instrumentation is a match, doesn’t mean the musicians will be.
“It’s like finding relationships, almost. It’s that hard, and even harder because you have to have the right instrumentations and all kinds of things. We just put a string quartet together and it’s taken several months and we’re still not quite settled. It’s like getting four people married — to find four people with proper schedules that can all meet at the same time, that all like each other, that all play on a similar level and that all have similar goals and direction in mind,” Grossman said.
“You have to feel comfortable in offering your own opinions and being flexible and accepting others’ ideas. You have to be able to take constructive criticism and give it and discuss things in a very neutral, friendly way to achieve that musical goal. Ideally, for like-minded people, the reward of matching and fitting together is really what drives and pushes people to that goal,” she said.
The smaller the pool of musicians in which to fish, the more difficult it is to catch those matches.
“Playing chamber music is something that’s really fun to do, but it’s hard to do in a small community because to find enough people who are like minded and at a similar level that you can really enjoy it, is difficult,” Allison said.
But when it works, it works wonderfully. Playing in a large group, like a symphony, is simply a different experience, being but one blade of grass in the whole field, adding to the fullness and beauty but doing so under someone else’s direction. Being part of a smaller chamber group allows more individuality and collaboration, as all have a voice in setting the roots and shaping what grows.
“A symphony is blending. Chamber music, I think, is like everyone in the group is playing a solo together,” Charlestream said.
“If you’re in an orchestra or a choir, if you can hear your own part that means you’re too hot and you have to blend,” Allison said. “Chamber music is fun because each person has their own part and you can hear exactly how your part fits with everybody else’s part. It’s more expressive because you can do more. The three of us we can say, ‘Oh, we like this, we like that.’”
Grossman relishes the creative give and take of that collaboration.
“There’s collaborating musically on the instrument and also verbally when we’re discussing what we want out of the piece, because there’s a hundred different ways to play and interpret a piece, and to come to agreement on how we’re going to approach something. It can be fun, it can also be bitter if people don’t get along, but it can be really fun when they do,” Grossman said.
Charlestream chose the introductory piece for this trio to get that conversation started, Beethoven’s “Trio in B-Flat Major, op. 11.”
“I felt like it would be a good a way for us to get to know each other musically. There’s a lot happening — phrasing mixed with rhythmical things. It just seemed like a good thing to start with. It’s not really that difficult but, phrasingwise and musically, it is. You have to all agree on a lot,” he said.
- Grossman, Charlestream and Allison aren’t the only ones to have found musical harmony together, as the concert will include other ensembles, as well:
- Charlestream, on cello, and Grossman, playing piano, will perform a Baroque piece, “Sicilienne,” by Maria Theresia von Paradis;
- Tammy Vollom-Matturro, clarinet, Grossman, on viola, and Allison, piano, will perform “Eight Pieces, op. 83” by Max Bruch;
- Charlestream will perform “Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, op. 38,” by Brahms, with Grossman playing piano; and
- Grossman, violin, Jeanne Duhan, French horn, and Allison, piano, will perform “Horn Trio in E-Flat Major, op. 40,” by Brahms.
The concert is at 7:30 p.m. March 7 in the Ward Building at KPC, sponsored by the Showcase Arts and Lecture Series. Admission is free and it is open to the public.