A LIVELY ENSEMBLE

BY BILL THOMPSON

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It’s a cliché born of a dozen movies. Formally dressed dinner guests, having finished a sumptuous repast, settle into a drawing room with their brandies and liqueurs to enjoy the evening’s entertainment: live classical chamber music. Within minutes, eyelids heavy, they are nodding off.

This popular image distorts the reality of a musical form that can be vibrant and invigorating.

“It scares people away in some cases. They’re not sure how they are supposed to act or what they are going to hear,” says Sandra Nikolajevs, president and artistic director of Chamber Music Charleston (chambermusiccharleston.com), now in its ninth season.

Yet, chamber music can be among the most informal of musical styles, melding classical and modern in casual settings. Consider a recent Chamber Music Charleston (CMC) concert at the City Gallery featuring works by Handel, Dvorak … and Gershwin.

“Chamber music is about playing with friends,” adds Nikolajevs, who studied at Oberlin College, the Julliard School and the Paris Conservatory. “You have no conductor telling you what to do. It’s such a synthesis of musicians, each bringing their part to the table. It’s so expressive and so much fun.”

CMC prefers a style that is varied and approachable in musical terms, whether it be the Ovation (concert hall) series, held at such venues as the Sottile Theatre, Memminger Auditorium and City Gallery, or concerts performed in private homes. Nikolajevs, formerly of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and now principal bassoonist with the Savannah Philharmonic, introduces each piece to be performed.

The ambitious 2015 – 2016 season continues November 7 at Memminger with A Night in Vienna, an Ovation series presentation, featuring works by Strauss and Beethoven and a guest appearance by violinist Anthea Kreston. Prior to the concert, Memminger’s exterior garden will be transformed into a traditional Viennese wine garden, offering Austrian wines and culinary selections. Following on February 13 at Memminger is From Paris With Love, featuring guest violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and pianist Andrew Armstrong. The bill of fare for this Ovation series concert includes French wine and culinary delicacies.

Presenting a total of 60 to 65 concerts each year, CMC embarked on its new season solidly in the black, with an annual budget of $250,000, a core of 10 professional musicians and a steady stream of accomplished guest artists. CMC introduces five or more guest performers per season to lend freshness and a new perspective.

“I carefully select our guest artists, knowing not only that they will give our core performers an outside influence, but that they have connections outside of Charleston that, ideally, will get our core musicians work as well,” says Nikolajevs. “I try to create opportunities for our musicians to grow.”

Roughly 30 individual house concerts are performed each season, which means finding at least that many homes in which to play. Nikolajevs will approach a homeowner with a proposal to hold an event, and then CMC handles everything from tickets and refreshments to deciding what capacity fits in a home, supplying the chairs and taking care of post-event clean-up.

CMC also offers three classical concerts a year for kids: the annual A Night Before Christmas at the Sottile and two at the Charleston Museum Auditorium.

With all the creativity and professionalism that CMC has come to represent, there is, in Nikolajevs’ words, a strong impulse “not to mess things up” by presenting standard, uninspired concerts.

“I find that our audiences, even our older audiences, like being surprised,” she says. “We always have to re-invent ourselves and push the envelope.”

Bill Thompson writes about the arts, film and books.