We've all been there. Imagine you are at a social event where everyone knows each other really well and you are the newbie. It's sometimes difficult, perhaps awkward to join in the conversation, catch inside jokes and contribute. What is there to talk about?
That often happens in chamber music, also.
As established ensembles — like string quartets, brass quintets and wind quintets — add on to their troupe to perform pieces that call for a slightly larger configuration, there are musicians who know just how to adapt seamlessly.
Meet violist James Dunham, soloist, and viola professor at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. As a former member of the renowned Cleveland Quartet, the Axelrod String Quartet and the Sequoia String Quartet he knows what it's like to join forces with the same artists on a regular basis.
Yet as a chamber music collaborator, he is often called to be the guest, the fifth or sixth wheel. This will happen again on Thursday night when he performs Bruckner's String Quintet in F major with the American String Quartet, presented by Houston Friends of Chamber Music at Shepherd School of Music.
In preparation for Dunham's appearance, CultureMap visited with the viola whiz and chatted about being a collaborative artist, Bruckner and how to prepare to listen to music unknown to the listener.
CultureMap: You know how it feels to be a part of an established chamber group. In this concert however, you'll be joining another quartet as the fifth member.
That's something you've done with the Harrington String Quartet, the Westwood Wind Quintet, the Ying Quartet and others, I am sure. How do you approach integrating your musical ideas with a group that knows each other so well?
Does it feel like you are the fifth wheel?
James Dunham: What's really fun about it, is that each group has its own cohesive personality, its own music identity. Because the ensemble is so established, it feels more like playing a duo rather than feeling like I am the fifth wheel.
Often we are asked, how much did you rehearse? The answer is typically a few hours plus 30 or so years experience.
When you play the Mendelssohn Octet, for example, with two established ensembles, it's natural, it's organic. However, in festivals where eight faculty members sit together to do so that don't perform together regularly, it's a different beast.
When I perform with another group, my instincts kick in. Often, we look at each other and wonder if we've rehearsed before. It's just part of the nature of chamber music. I have played before with the American String Quartet and we know each other well.
CM: Bruckner is a somewhat misunderstood, often neglected composer. As a student I always thought of performing his works as a big tonic expansion. His Quintet in F is not heard often, partly due to the length.
Do you like the Bruckner? Will this be the first time you've played it?
JD: This will be the second time. I had the chance to perform it at the Aspen Music Festival a couple of years ago.
In the world of chamber music, when it comes to quintets, you often play Mozart, Brahms, sometimes Dvorak — if you don't know it, it's like the American quartet you haven't heard before — prior to considering Bruckner. Houston Friends of Chamber Music wanted something different, so we were delighted as we rarely get the opportunity.
CM: How do you begin to tackle it?
JD: It's grand to play. Often we are asked, how much did you rehearse? The answer is typically a few hours plus 30 or so years experience.
We'll have a couple of days to rehearse it. It's after all a long 40-minute piece.
CM: What's the role of your viola part in this piece? As a 40-minute piece, it rivals symphonic length, and that would seem exhausting for a chamber group. What are the challenges?
Milton Babbitt proposed to think of a scientist. No one is expected to understand that language without proper research. Why would music be any different?
JD: The viola, in general, plays an inner voice but because the Bruckner is a quintet with two violas, he treats it as a dual role. The first viola has quite a lot of extended solos that suits the instrument's personality, that inner voice richness.
When I understand what my colleagues want, I have the ability the clear the path for them to feel liberated to play. It's a mixture of leading from within while driving the work, and that, for me, is a pleasure. It allows them to sound their best, so I sound my best.
CM: OK, difficult question time. How should a concert goer prepare to listen to a new work? For many in the audience, the Brucker will be a new piece, though it's in a familiar musical language.
JD: That's a good questions (laughs). I will tell you my theory, and how it got stepped on one day.
Generally speaking, the best music is also emotional. As human beings, we are also emotional. When I visit a country where I don't speak the language, I can discern from a conversation how things are going. I may not understand what they are talking about, but I can certainly tell if it's passionate, amicable, angry. I may not get it completely, but I have a good feel for what just went on.
You can also approach new music that way as well. If it's a great piece, even if you don't know musical language, you can get a lot from just listening.
CM: So, no need to read ahead, or do research? What about when tackling something like Webern's Five Movements Op. 5, which is also on the program, or any of his works?
JD: If someone is really inspired, it would be great to read ahead of time, most arts presenters have their program notes posted on their website prior to the concert.
Webern's Six Bagatelles is a collection of little gems. Often they are played twice because they are so short. As a performer, if you miss an accent, a marking, you miss a lot, so they are difficult to play. The Five Movements is an earlier piece, so it's more romantic, more accessible.
If you listen closely, you gain a lot.
CM: Now, about how your theory got stepped on?
JD: Right! I also play in a consortium as part of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society in Washington D.C. With the Axelrod String Quartet, we tend to stretch ourselves. One time, we performed Bartok's String Quartet No. 1. It's so dissonant, yet beautiful, but some of the audience members did not find it so.
The next day, Milton Babbit — we commissioned his String Quartet No. 5 — was quoted questioning why anyone would understand his music if they didn't have the background. He proposed to think of a scientist. No one is expected to understand that language without proper research. Why would music be any different?
It's a case of the more you know. You'll be moved in a different way. So there are two ways to look at it.
CM: You've done so much in your career. Is there anything you'd been craving to do?
JD: Coming from the California Institute of the Arts, where I did my bachelor and masters degree, I did play a lot of jazz there. One day, I would love to circle back to that world.
While living in Los Angeles, I was involved in all kinds of music. I was in two chamber orchestras, the Sequoia Quartet, taught at Cal-Arts, I did lots of studio work — which means different music every time, from contemporary, edgy, to the most beautiful music, to big band. So I became very comfortable with lots of genres.
Perhaps some day I will circle around, though I can't imagine giving up what I am doing now, being active as a teacher and a chamber musician.
Houston Friends of Chamber Music presents the American String Quartet with guest violist James Dunham on Thursday at 8 p.m. at Shepherd School of Music. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-348-5400.