UNFAIR OR NOT, the conventional image of chamber music players is rather staid. How many times have magazines caricatured four penguin-like figures sitting in a semicircle at their music stands sawing away at their string?
But if the title of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has a touch of the staid, the society itself is anything but that. Perhaps it might more accurately be called the Chamber Music Mob of Lincoln Center.
And the mob packs them in for its annual four concerts at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the second of which is Saturday night, and at the 14 annual pairs of concerts at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.
The society is unique - the only fully staffed, year-round institution devoted to performing the full range of chamber works - from an unaccompanied cello sonata to semiorchestral works like the ingratiating Dvorak D minor Serenade that nine wind players and two string players performed here at the society's October concert.
Its permanent nucleus is 11 string, wind, brass and piano virtuosos, all renowed solosits, who devoted varying specified periods of their schedules each year to playing with the society. When additional musicians are needed, as in the Dvovak, a regular contingent of players is drawn upon.
All this - combined with the society's national tours, its recordings and the commissioning of about two dozen new chamber works - makes the organiztion the most ambitious, versatile, sustaine enterprise yet formed to play chamber music.
Rarely do all the member of this musical all-star team gather on stage together. Few are the pieces that require two violins, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, hor, two pianos or a barpsichord. Also,conflicting engagements often prevent certain members from participating in concerts. For instance, Barry Tuckwell, the group's horn player, is probably the most famous of all horn players and spends much of his year touring as a soloist.
But one Saturday afternoon last October, there were five of them on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage, starting to rehearse the Dvorak Serenade, along with six musicians who had been called in to play additional parts.
They had played the tricky four-movement work several times previously that week, but they still weren't satisfied with the interpretation.
Oboist Leonard Arner inquired, "Do we need to do another complete run-through?"
Clarinetist Gervase de Peyer, who like Tuckwell is British and is probably the only clarinetist besides Benny Goodman who can afford a solo career, said, "No. But there are several things that need work."
Pointing to a passage in the first movement, de Peyer observed that there had not been sufficient bit in recent performances. "It is very difficult," he noted, "the difference between fortissimo and forte." They played it several times and de Peyer said, "We've got it."
Then in the second movement things got more difficult.There was a little gentlemanly dissension about the proper pace of a minuet after Tuckwell observed, "Let's make it sound like a real minuet."
Leslie Parnas, the society's cellist, replied, "I think our version of a minuet is a little headstrong for this, so we can't really sing."
Bassoonist Loren Glickman interjected. "Otherwise, though, it sounds too much like the first movement."
They started playing and Charles Wadsworth, the organization's founder, its artistic director, its harpsichordist, and one of its pianists monitored from the auditorium.
Soon he interjected: "It sound like you're doing a faster tempo than in New York."
But Arner interrupted him. "That's just because there's more reverberation here and that makes it sound faster."
Finally there was a complete run-through of the movement and to one listener at least the performance sounded suitably brisk and boring.
There were no more dissents. The lessons seemed to be something that Arner had said earlier, "Whoever picks up the theme sets the tempo, ultimately." In this case he and de Peyer were picking up the theme, most of the time.
Asked after the rehearsal if interpretive disagreements are always resolved so amiably, the consensus was that this was typical, and subsequent interviews with individual members and one former member, violinist Charles Treger, uncovered no evidence to the contrary.
As de Peyer said that day at the Kennedy Center, "The one thing that keeps it civilized is humor."
Wadsworth said he doesn't have to monitor disputes, that his role is merely to give suggestions, except of course when he is performing.
Each member works in a different way to influence colleagues. "Some are more stubborn than others." Wadsworth noted. Some play particularly pivotal roles in solving problems. Pointing to Tuckwell, Wadsworth said, "barry simply carries such great authority that he will quietly intercede to resolve a difference."
The Chamber Music Society is the brainchild of William Schuman, th eminent composer and also the administrative chief of Lincoln Center in the 1960s. As work proceeded on the center's chamber music facility, Alice Tully Hall, named after the philanthropist who paid for it and is also chairman of the society's board, Schuman started to develop ideas for a permanent resident of the hall.
Establishing chamber music ensembles was not new for Schuman, who founded the Juilliard Quartet while he was president of the Juilliard School.
Schuman felt the new organization should be ambitious enough to put chamber music on an equal footing with opera, symphonic music, theater and ballet at the center. Also, it should be large and diverse enough to play splendid music previously neglected because it was written for unusual instrumental combinations.
De Peyer recalls being recruited "just out of the blue." He was already well known in the United States through recordings, but economics required that he hold on to his first clarinet chair with the London Symphony Orchestra until he joined the society. (Wadsworth declines to say what members are paid per concert but adds, "We pay very well.")
The society made its debut in 1969 and started its series here two years later, when the Kennedy Center opened. Wadsworth is in charge of artistic policies. The curse of his job is getting the right combination of instrumentalists together at the right time Tuckwell and de Peyer have busy international careers. "I've already had to arrange with Barry for six pairs in 1979, because his schedule runs so far in advance," says Wadsworth. Flutist Paria Robison could not play this fall because she had just had a baby.
Norman Singer is in charge of the society's business. Of course, like all large performing arts groups, the society runs at a deficit, but his job is eased by the fact that the box office provides an unusally high 60 per cent of yearly income. The rest is made up from a variety of sources. In addition there is a growing endowment, now at about $1.5 million, to insure the society's future.
There are horror stories about how conductors and orchestral players become bitter enemies over interpretive details. And members of string quartets are forever quitting because of personal animosities. There are the stories of how the members of the Budapest Quartet used to travel separately, eat separately and stay in different hotels.
How then can the society's solo virtuosos, all with strong ideas of their own, make music together in such apparent tranquility without a conductor?
One reason, says former member Treger, is the flexibility of the arrangement. "Unlike string quartets they don't have to stay together 365 days a year."
Oboist Arner points to yet another reason: "The authoritarian element is missing, so each person feels he is functioning as a soloist." Even when both violinists, James Buswell and Jamine Laredo, are playing they alternate between first and second violin. Things are never put to a vote, because there is a consensus that compromise is better.
Tuckwell sums up the society's spirit this way: "A performer must never forget that if three people have three different and strong opinions, it may nonetheless very well be true that a fourth answer is even better."