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Q&A with James Keller, author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide

We sat down with James Keller, author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, and asked him a few questions about his career and his musical interests. We learned, among other things, which trio of composers he would invite over for lunch and what he would have done if he had not been a music writer.

What was the last concert you attended?

It consisted of a single work: Mahler‘s Symphony No. 3, with Bernard Haitink conducting the New York Philharmonic. A concertgoer can pass quite a few seasons without hearing Mahler’s Third, but, curiously, I have encountered it twice this season. I also heard the San Francisco Symphony perform it, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, back in March — a very different interpretation from Haitink’s. It’s the longest of Mahler’s symphonies, running almost an hour and forty minutes. It requires a huge orchestra, a women’s choir, a children’s choir, and a mezzo-soprano soloist, and the conductor needs to impose a clearly delineated vision in order for the piece to come off successfully. You might say that Mahler’s Third is practically the opposite of chamber music, which typically involves a handful of players working out the interpretation through a democratic approach that does not involve a conductor. But you do also encounter a spirit of chamber music in Mahler symphonies, where very often he spotlights a small ensemble of musicians from out of the huge orchestral resources he has assembled on stage. These passages require somewhat different skills compared to the “section playing” that is the backbone of orchestral work. It’s one of the reasons most major orchestras have chamber music incentives for their members to participate in. Apart from the sheer joy and intellectual stimulation of it, playing chamber music together provides an unbeatable exercise in team-building.

Which composer, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

Just as I love the music of different composers in different ways and for different reasons, I would doubtless like meeting them in person for different reasons. Of course, I would love to meet Johann Sebastian Bach, just to be in the presence of that magnitude of genius — but I would probably find myself completely tongue-tied and thereby waste the occasion. If I were assembling a little luncheon for four and wanted to have a truly enjoyable time rather than just be in awe, I might send out an invitation to Franz Joseph Haydn and the Mendelssohn siblings, Felix and Fanny. These were all cultured, curious, and, I think, kind people whose careers brought them in touch with their art from different angles. I would buy a visitors’ book and ask them each to dash off a little canon for me.

The big-name composer I came closest to intersecting with was Sergei Rachmaninoff. I lived for a decade in the same Manhattan apartment building he did — 505 West End Avenue — but the time was out of joint and he died 40 years before I moved in. An assortment of his family’s home movies are posted on YouTube, and in one of them he’s walking in front of the building and getting into a car. In truth, he’s not one of my favorite composers, but I nonetheless feel quite proprietary about him.

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Is there a composer you think is criminally underrated?

Yes, there is, and this very year we happen to be celebrating the tricentenary of his birth. It is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian, one of four Bach sons to become notable composers and unquestionably the finest of the bunch. It was perhaps a two-edged sword, being the son of Bach. On one hand, he learned music at the knee of … well, Bach. On the other, he was obviously overshadowed by his father, whose musical legacy C.P.E. worked assiduously to preserve and champion. The bigger issue, though, is that he is the finest representative of a style that proved only fleetingly popular, a transitional style that was rooted in the intellectual contrapuntal methods of the Baroque but strained forward to the Classical esthetic of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, all of whom admired him deeply. In fact, he died in 1788, so only three years before Mozart did. He didn’t display the breadth of Mozart — or of Haydn, who of all the A-list composers is the one he most calls to mind — but within the smaller framework of his art he was superb. His music tends to be hyper-emotive and volatile. It is filled with surprise and can turn on a dime. He’s one of those composers who really depends on his interpreters. Of course, all music benefits from a fine performance, but a Haydn, Mozart, or Brahms can survive a lot of abuse and still shine through. C.P.E. Bach doesn’t really stand a chance without the help of sensitive performers who have taken the time and effort to master what his style is all about. There is no shortage of underrated composers in general. You can encounter quite a few who hit the ball out of the park in a piece or two or three, but who don’t do it consistently throughout their oeuvre. I find that C.P.E. Bach is a relatively consistent figure. You just have to cultivate an appreciation for his particular language, which for many people is not all that familiar. Within that style he is without peer.

What’s your guilty listening pleasure?

I feel no guilt about any music I listen to. People are often surprised to learn that I am a great aficionado of American popular song from the 19th-century through the vaudeville era. So if you want a rousing chorus of “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother is Dead” or “They’re Wearing ’Em Higher in Hawaii,” I’m your man. A few years ago I curated for a historical society in San Francisco a museum show of sheet music that illuminated the history of California from the Gold Rush through the Roaring Twenties, and an offshoot of the show has been touring around the state’s regional museums ever since. I spend a lot of time listening to the National Jukebox, which is an amazing repository of early recordings available to all online through the Library of Congress: my tax dollars at work in a way I really like. I always keep in my car some CDs featuring the late, great Don Walser, the Texas singer-yodeler who was rightly dubbed “The Pavarotti of the Plains.” I am also not guilty about that.

Do you play a musical instrument? Which one? If not, which do you wish you could play?

My principal instrument when I went to conservatory was the oboe. I got pretty good at it. Some of the wind instruments have tended to hold on to remnants of national playing styles, and the oboe is an example of that. I happened to love the French style of oboe playing, so I went to study in Paris with one of the greatest practitioners of the oboe, Maurice Bourgue. It’s one of the instruments that you either play quite well or quite badly; there’s not a huge middle ground. Playing the oboe involves some facial muscles that don’t get much exercise otherwise, so if you don’t keep practicing strenuously you get out of shape very quickly and then it sounds awful. That would be me, at this point.

Of course I play the piano some—not particularly well, but I enjoy it. It’s a useful tool for me, since in my work as a program annotator I often need to read through scores, and the piano is the way to do this. I have a beautiful, ornate, rosewood “parlor grand” piano built in the 1870s by the Weber Piano Company, which was one of the leading builders at the time but shortly after that was eclipsed by Steinway & Sons, which was stronger in technological development. It has a “pre-Steinway” sound, as you might expect. The problem is, I am rather a klutz. That would also get in the way of my excelling on the instrument I would most like to play, which is the organ.

If you weren’t a music writer, what career would you have?

Well, I have actually had a couple of other careers. I was briefly a college professor, teaching music history, and then I worked for a decade on Wall Street, which people find quite surprising — nobody more so than me. I did find it interesting, actually, but when the market crashed in 1987, I took it as a sign that I should head back to doing what I had always enjoyed the most, which was writing about music. I keep my schedule full, since for many years I have been the program annotator of both the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. And I also work “half-time” as critic-at-large on the staff of the Santa Fe New Mexican, which is the oldest continuously published newspaper west of the Mississippi. I write columns and reviews on all sorts of things — music, theatre, visual arts, books, ideas — but it grows particularly intense during the summer months, when our remarkable little city of Santa Fe goes into overdrive with its musical and other cultural offerings.

If I were magically able to pursue another career parallel to what I already do, I would become a wildlife manager specializing in big cats, too many of which are becoming critically endangered. I have spent time up close with quite a few interesting felids in southern and eastern Africa, and I suppose cheetahs might end up my focus. Did you know that the fur in a cheetah’s spots is much softer than the fur that surrounds it? That’s an interesting surprise you discover when you pat a cheetah, which you would not do in the wild unless the animal were anesthetized but which you certainly can do in a cheetah sanctuary, if you are the sort of person who relates well to cats. Where I live, out in the country northwest of Santa Fe, I am in frequent contact with bobcats (Lynx rufus). They sleep on my porch furniture, which I might, too, if I were a bobcat.

James Keller, longtime Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, was awarded the prestigious ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for feature writing about music in Chamber Music magazine, where he has been Contributing Editor for more than a decade. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide.

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