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In Studio: Chamber Ensemble Camera Lucida

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Aired 5/27/09

On Monday, June 1st, the chamber group Camera Lucida gives a rare San Diego performance of Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, along with Franz Schubert's String Quintet in C major. Camera Lucida is a unique chamber ensemble and collaboration between the San Diego Symphony and the faculty of UCSD's Music Department. We'll talk to two of its founding members.

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: Watch Camera Lucida perform in the KPBS Performance Studio.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Imagine some of San Diego's finest musicians in the spotlight, performing at the peak of their abilities, in the center of a lighted room, a camera lucida. The Camera Lucida chamber music series now heads to the new Conrad Prebys Concert Hall on the UCSD campus for a performance that promises to make good use of that hall's exquisite acoustics. The Camera Lucida series is a collaboration between the performance faculty in the UCSD Music Department and principals of the San Diego Symphony. And, I'm pleased to say, two of those musicians are here with me today to perform for us live and to talk about their upcoming chamber music performance. I want to welcome them both. First Jeff Thayer.

JEFF THAYER: Good morning. Thank you

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Charles Curtis is a cellist and professor of music at UCSD. He's a founding member of Camera Lucida.

CHARLES CURTIS: Thank you, Maureen. Good to see you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Violinist and Concert Master of San Diego Symphony. I'd like to start right away with a performance. Charles, what will you be performing today?

CHARLES CURTIS: We're going to play a movement from a work we played on the last Camera Lucida. This is the sonata for violin and cello by Maurice Ravel, composed I think in 1920 or ‘21.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And, is that part of what you usually perform. Is this the type of music that Camera Lucida usually presents?

CHARLES CURTIS: Yes. Camera Lucida is focused on on the music of the 18th, 19th, and I would say early 20th centuries. Yes. It's the kind of piece that we are very interested in. It's a masterpiece in representative of the early modernism. And that's one of the things we're interested in. We've also performed Bach and Schubert and Mozart. We did a beautiful all Mozart's program this year. That's the range of what we're interested in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Before I actually ask you to play, I really should talk a little bit about what Camera Lucida is. How did Camera Lucida get together, Jeff?

JEFF THAYER: Well, a lot of things went into it. When I came to San Diego 5 years ago, I learned that there was no real outlet for the symphony musicians to have a chamber music outlet, and also, I wanted very much to have some collaboration with the UCSD music department. And with some luck, and some very helpful people, we started slowly with small series, and this year, thanks to Sam Ersin who is funding the series, we have a 5 concert series this year, which we're about to perform our last final concert of the season, and next year, we're expanding to six. So it's a lot of elements that went into the formation of the series.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's if we can talk a little bit about the name, Camera Lucida. As I said in my opening, literally, in Latin, it means lighted room. But there's also another meaning that artists use. It's a tool they use to find more detail in their drawing. And I wonder if maybe it means that you you want to find a little bit more detail in these pieces that you perform, any thought about that?

CHARLES CURTIS: Yes. That's definitely part of the idea. I mean, the most primary reference for, to us, for the word camera, is musica da camera, which is the Italian for chamber music. So that relationship between music, sound and the space that it's performed in, is really important to us, and the idea that chamber music is something intimate and so on. But also, this notion of the Camera Lucida as you say, a tool for tracing perspective and what we're doing, is kind of examining historical music from a modern perspective. From the present day perspective. So it is kind of a, yes, kind of a sharpening of focus you can say on the music.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, now I think it's time for the two of you to perform for us, if you will. I want to say that Charles Curtis is on on on cello and Jeff Thayer is on violin and they will be performing the piece from Ravel, that Charles told us about just a few moments ago.

[ music ]

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was Charles Curtis, cellist, professor of music at UCSD and Jeff Thayer, violinist, concert master of the San Diego symphony. They are brought together by Camera Lucida the music series that we're talking about right now. And they just performed chamber music by Ravel. And they're getting settled once again in their seats to talk to us. Charles, tell us again what piece that was by Ravel.

CHARLES CURTIS: Yes, that was the First Movement from the Sonata for Violin and Cello by Ravel.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what kinds of chamber pieces you're interested in performing with Camera Lucida?

CHARLES CURTIS: Well, you know, chamber music, I kind of want to say that chamber music is a Johndra that has a historical positioning and it emerges perhaps in the baroque period, as a distinction to sacred music and then really, as a distinction to public music like opera and symphony. Especially in the early romantic period, it has a very particular status as something that people did at home. And it has a kind of private quality, an intimate quality, a personal quality. And so, I really see that as the heart of the chamber music idea, the idea those of chamber music, is that kind of intimacy and privacy and its relationship to a room. And that is why this notion of the lighted room, the illuminated room, is, I think quite beautiful. You know, and also, by extension, the notion that music is a way of illuminating a space that is shared by listeners and musicians.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Jeff, I'm wondering, how do these decisions get made, which pieces you're going to be performing? Is one of you serving as artistic director?

JEFF THAYER: I would say, if we had to nominate one person, that would be Charles. But we all talk about it, and we don't play anything that is objected to completely. So, it's a wonderful, actually, the hardest part of our season is finding the dates. The fun part is planning the repertoire. So we have wonderful discussions about that, at various points throughout the year.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, talking about chamber music and when it's performed and when it was most popular, and it's moved out of the living room, and into the concert hall, you're performing a piece on Monday night by Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schubert. Let's talk about the Schoenberg first, because it's rarely performed and I, for our audience members who don't know, tell us about the career of composer Schoenberg Either one of you. As they look. Decide.

CHARLES CURTIS: Well, Schoenberg is a very interesting case, because in a sense, he's considered a sort of an auto didactic as a composer, and yet, he was a kind of a virtuoso composer too. And he came up in the late Romantic period as almost a disciple of Gustave Mahler. And you know, in the around the time of the first world war and a little bit after, he kind of made history with a new methodology and new system for composing music. And prior to that, there's a period which is called the freely atonal period of Schoenberg, in which he is really just kind of making it up and inventing music out of thin air. And it's an extremely exciting period, because his music is very free. It's very abstract. It's, you want to compare it to what happened in New York with the abstract expressionist painters who felt, we're going to start from scratch and go to the blank slate here. In a way, Schoenberg was doing this with this piece.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are going to hear more of the musical expressionist many of Arnold Shoenberg your pardon when we return. We do have to take a short break. We'll continue talking to the musicians of Camera Lucida when These Days returns in just a minute. (Break.)

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The Camera Lucida series is a collaboration between performance, faculty and the UCSD Music Department, and principals of the San Diego symphony. And I have two of those musicians here with me today. They just performed a piece by Ravel. And we're talking about the piece from their upcoming concert on Monday. Charles Curtis is with me, he's a cellist and professor of music at UCSD. And Jeff Thayer, Concert Master of the San Diego Symphony. And we were talking about this piece by Arnold Schoenberg and how it is rarely performed and iingts called pierrot lunaire. What's start with the basics. What is this piece based on?

JEFF THAYER: It's based on some poems, a set of poems by Albert Sharow. And, this, the music is based on Schoenberg's 12 tone series that he invented, literally, out of nothing, really. And he was one of the second group of the Vienese school. So we have the first Vienese school with Mozart, Schubert, Hayden and then Schoenberg revolutionized this system of writing. I have to say that the piece that we're playing, the pierrot lunaire is probably the biggest piece that I remember from music history class going through school. It's just, it's a landmark, a milestone in musical history,

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why is that?

JEFF THAYER: Because it's like nothing we've had before. The amazing thing, to me, is that, as contemporary as it sounds, it was written nearly a hundred years ago, I think 97 years ago it was written.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Charles beings as you were saying, it has a sense of the same kind of expressionist many that we found in art. In the last century. And I think one of the most characteristic things that people can hear when they hear a bit from Pierre lun nair, is this form of speech singing that shown Schoenberg actually sort of originated. Tell us about that i.E.

CHARLES CURTIS: Well, he didn't really originate it. It does occur earlier in music. And it also relates to two other forms. One of them is what was called at the time the melodrama. And the melodrama was a piece of music that accompanied a recitation of a poem. So it was a kind of, I don't know, like a pre cursor to spoken word, or even to, even to wrap for that matter, you know. And then the other form that it really draws from is Caberet music. And the idea of the caberet Singer who is not a fully trained Singer, an open erratic style Singer and who also half speaks the lines and is focusd on the expression of the words and so on. So these two things and in fact, Schoenberg actually made money for a while as a Caberet pianist in Berlin caberets This is a little known sign, you know, to classical music. A lot of great composers Brahms, for instance, as a youth, apparently played the double base in a bordelo in Hamburg, You know. And Santiago spent most of his career in the Black Cat in Paris. The Monmarte.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder why they didn't want this known.

CHARLES CURTIS: So, you know, it has that kind of quality of cabaret. But yes, in Schoenberg's case, typically, it makes it into something extremely specific. Speech song, you know, where he notates pitches but tells you to move into the them and away from them so you you don't actually sustain pitches. Except for a couple of times in the piece he says, sing, hold this note, sing this note.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, Jeff told us it's based on a series of poems. Is there a linear story involved, Charles?

CHARLES CURTIS: You couldn't say that it's a story. It's more like a set of scenes. And the scenes have to do with this clown period, Pierrot lunaire. He's a clown but a sad clown. He's one of these sad individuals with a smile painted on his face. It's kind of a Charlie chaplain or Paliacci figure like that. And he's very closely related to the moon and to darkness and to night time. Until the very end where there is a little bit of a sense of redemption that he returns home and opens the windows and lets the sun in. So there is a sense of, of, yes, of a resolution at the end. But for most of the poem, it's a macabre, bizarre, sort of the lord of Bolaire and, you know, the, kind of the seemy side of things, I'd have to say.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Who did Schoenberg compose this piece for, Jeff, do you know?

JEFF THAYER: It was for an actress. Albertina Seema was her name. A Vienese actress.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I guess what I am getting to, is, will there be a classical Singer in concert with you Monday night?

GUEST SPEAKER: There's a, we have a wonderful new you Singer in town, Susan Narucki she's a new faculty member at U C S D and she's very well known for doing this sort of performing, and very lucky to have her in town to do it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, we're lucky enough to hear an excerpt from Schoenberg's pierrot lunaire. Tell us about this piece and what it's called, Charles.

CHARLES CURTIS: This is called in German, which means meanness and or foul play. It's translated in different ways. And in this particular scene, pierrot lunaire is kind of, he's in a prolonged battle with Cassander, who is the father of his beloved columbine. And Casander kind of represents bougoise society. And in this particular one, believe it or not, he drills into Casander’s head and stuffs tobacco into his head and smokes tobacco through Casander's head.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, now we have to hear it. This is an excerpts from Schoenberg's pierrot lunaire.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's an excerpt from Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. And I understand this is a very challenging piece for musicians to perform, and that fact is often obscured because the audiences get caught up m the drama of the singing, would you agree to both of those, Jeff?

JEFF THAYER: Yes, I mean, it is a very difficult piece. It's often done with conductor. We're doing it without. So that adds another element of challenge to the whole process. It is a very dramatic piece and it's very, as you just heard, it's very expressive, in an abstract way. I would like to just read the final sentence of Schoenberg's description of the piece. Which it's afford to the score. He was so specific about what he wrote, put in the score that he, he said the performers must resist adding something that the composer did not intend. If he did so, he would not be adding, but subtracting. And I find that to be enlightening in terms of how we are approaching the score and putting it together. We need to be pretty honest with it.

CHARLES CURTIS: But it also sounds a little paranoid to me on Schoenberg's part.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Jeff, as you mentioned, this piece is hundred years old, and yet audiences still find, I think music like this, rather challenging. And I'm wondering, what do you think about this music?

JEFF THAYER: Well, I think it is challenging. I think we're all fascinated by it. Do we all love it? I think we have a different degree of that answer for all the performers. The fascinating thing to me is that, here we are, playing on this program, two, two master pieces, the other piece, the Schubert quintet for two cellos was written a hundred years, approximately before the pierrot lunaire. And then we go a hundred years and get the Schoenberg, and here we are a hundred years later performing it. It's a very interesting progression and way to view where we've come, m the past 200 years.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's an interesting way to look at it. Charles, what is your feeling on perhaps audiences who don't get this music?

CHARLES CURTIS: Well, I think that, clearly, you know, you don't get necessarily a warm and fuzzy feeling from listening to this music. It's not something you want to cuddle up to in the evening. But at the same time, it's an extraordinary experience, and I think that, I think it's an experience everybody should have. The piece lasts about 35 minutes, and I think we can all devote 35 minutes of our lives to something as unusual and striking as this. And you know, it has such a range of color, we should mention the instrumentation. It's 5 instruments. But in fact, excuse me, it's 5 performers, but actually 8 instruments. Because, Jeff for instance, has to double on the viola, which he's never done before. Which is an Adventure for him. The flute has to double with piccolo; the clarinet has to double with base Clarinet. And so Schoenberg kind of, you know, choreo graphs this very carefully throughout the piece. Of the 21 songs there's not a single duplication of instruments in the entire set of songs. In the very last song, he uses every instrument, because those who double, pick up their instrument. It's an extraordinary range of musical colors and range of expression as well. I think it's a very rich, very eccentric and idiosyncratic thing. And also beautifully crafted.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's hear one more excerpt. This section is called him heart, and let's hear it. ( Music.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Once again, that's a segment of Pierrot Lunaire, part of the featured musical selection that will be on the program on Monday night, for Camera Lucida. And it's also going to be paired as you you mentioned with Schubert piece. And it's an ipting pairing of the two. Why did you want to perform these pieces together?

CHARLES CURTIS: Well, as Jeff pointed out, we think of the early Vienese masters, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, now we think of them as what we call the first Vienese school. And Schoenberg, his circle, and a couple of others, as the second Vienese school. And, you know the Schubert, in a sense, you could see it as both the culmination of the classical period, and also the very beginnings of Romanticism, of full Romanticism. And Schoenberg is maybe the end of Romanticism, following Wagner and Mahler. And the beginning of modernism. So both of them represent a genre story. It's an ending and beginning. Schoenberg is turning the corner from high stream Romanticist many to this modernist period that is you know, in his, in the final movement of the second string quarter, the poem he quotes, I feel the air of other planets. It's another world, it's an opening to another world. And you have that in the Schubert as well. You have the Schubert, it seems like, the, like a door to eternity. It is such a powerful, and just by its sheer length, and the incredible expansiveness of that piece. You know, they spoke of the heavenly lengths of Schubert's music.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm afraid we've run out of time.

CHARLES CURTIS: We thought we had heavenly lengths and we didn't.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much. Charles Curtis, professor of music at UCSD. Thank you, for performing and talking with us.

CHARLES CURTIS: Thank you

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Same goes for Jeff Thayer. San Diego symphony, it was great to see you again.

JEFF THAYER: Thank you, so much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Camera Lucida will perform Monday June 1st in the new Conrad Prebys concert hall. It begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the UCSD box office or at the door. Thank you all for listening. You have been listening to These Days on on KPBS.

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