The UK boasts multiple chorus and orchestral opportunities for amateurs, but chamber playing seems strangely ignored
Last week I attended a String Quartet Festival for Gramophone in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia. While the standard of professional playing on display was impressive, and indeed the town itself was very handsome - comprised as it was of mainly 16th and 17th century buildings – it was the devotion to amateur playing that really made an impact.
Reggio Emilia invites both professionals and amateurs to take part during its week of festivities, giving the amateurs the opportunity not only to attend first rate concerts, but also to take part in a comprehensive programme of workshops with such tutors as Lindsays founder Peter Cropper and Christophe Giovaninetti, former first violinist of the Ysaÿe Quartet and current leader of the Elysée Quartet. This year the number of amateurs attending doubled to 53, such is the success of the programme, but although players had travelled from as far a field as Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan, there was just a single representative from the UK.
This got me to wondering whether the UK supports amateur chamber players as wholeheartedly as it should. It’s no secret that we have a wonderful tradition of amateur choral singing with established societies in practically every town. We also have a very strong commitment to amateur orchestral playing, and recreational chamber and symphony orchestras can be found up and down the country.
Making Music, which represents amateur and semi-professional groups in the UK, does an excellent job in supporting these institutions. A quick glance at the statistics on its website will tell you that it currently has 2800 member groups and 200,000 individual musicians on its books. But if you scroll through the list of registered ensembles, there are very few smaller than a chamber orchestra.
The situation is very different in Japan. Its Amateur Players Association (APA) represents far less individual musicians, but many more of these devote themselves to chamber performance. The bulk of the amateur players in Reggio Emilia were members of the APA, and extremely enthusiastic at that. Most of the other attendees were members of the ACMP Chamber Music Network, which represents 5000 players in 57 countries, but is based in the US and must therefore have a bias towards that area.
Judging from the amount of enjoyment demonstrated by the amateur groups at the festival, I would say we are missing out in the UK. Chamber playing is one of the most rewarding and personal of musical forms for its participants, as it demands absolute dedication to the “team”, but also allows opportunities for solo playing and initiative. Plus there’s the sheer variety of repertoire available and the fact that rehearsals need only a living room, rather than an expensive hall.
There are several recreational chamber music societies in London, but certainly not the widespread nationalised services that exist for orchestras or choirs. Will this ever be rectified? Perhaps in this age of frugality small scale playing will become more fashionable – and that would be no bad thing.
Charlotte Smith is Gramophone news editor. She is also a freelance violinist and the team's resident film enthusiast.