Just before the Union City Chamber Players delved into their second performance of the season two Sundays ago, Peter Borten, one of the group’s artistic directors, addressed the audience with a note about the program.
“When we put this show together, we knew it would be following an election, but we didn’t know it’d be following a hurricane,” Borten said. “It’s a dark program with an arc of suffering, but it moves towards a feeling of tranquil resolution.”
His description was dead on. A complicated roller coaster of musical emotion with intense high points and intricate arrangements, Borten’s violin paired with Bernadette LaFond’s mezzo soprano voice and Marina Korsakova-Kreyn’s piano to produce a stunningly beautiful afternoon of music.
The show, which took place at St. John’s Episcopal Church, featured works by the composers Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), and the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981), and was designed to extol a range of feelings from the ecstatic to the disoriented. Most of all, Borten said, it was meant to be grasped by the entire audience, not just those familiar with the composers’ works.
“You don’t have to be classically trained to enjoy chamber music,” said Borten. “It’s a very democratic thing, because rather than a full orchestra where the conductor dictates everything, there is only one of each instrument, and so the audience can really connect with what each individual musician is trying to convey.”
LaFond, who is Borten’s wife and frequent collaborator over the past 25 years, said that singing for chamber compositions is about a connection with the audience.
“Chamber music recreates real life in a musical form, and so has all the same powerful elements as reality.” – Marina Korsakova-Kreyn
Korsakova-Kreyn, who in addition to being an internationally-recognized classical pianist, works as a cognitive neuroscientist studying the relationship between music and the brain, said that chamber music focuses on the deepest levels of musical intricacy.
“It’s romantic music, and to be able to perform it you need to be able to balance passion and control,” she said. “It recreates real life in a musical form, and so has all the same powerful elements as reality.”
This was never more apparent than halfway through the program, when Borten and Korsakova-Kreyn performed Brahms’ three-movement “Sonata in G Major, Op. 78.” Described by Korsakova-Kreyn as a “risky composition to take on,” the piece delves into a particularly painful episode of the composer’s life, when the youngest son of his protege, Robert Schumann, died prematurely at the age of 24. Schumann had died years earlier and Brahms stepped in as a father figure and household support for Schumann’s wife, Clara. Clara and Brahms fell in love, but Brahms refused her marriage proposal for reasons unknown. Years later, when Schumann’s son Felix died, Brahms composed the “Rain Sonata.”
“It’s an intense piece,” said Borten. “The pain that Brahms’ felt following Felix’s death is felt throughout, and there’s almost some guilt in the second movement, and then it culminates with a feeling of peaceful resolution.”
Borten and Korsakova-Kreyn practiced the peace intensely for a year and a half, during which the idea spawned to include another Brahms piece in the program, “Gestillte Sehnsucht, Op. 91, No. 1.” LaFond lent her voice to this piece, which thrilled both Borten and Korsakova-Kreyn.
“Peter and I had performed that piece together in Rome about 20 years ago,” LaFond said, “and when we met Marina we realized it was the perfect time to revisit it.”
Korsakova-Kreyn supported including the piece after she heard LaFond sing for the first time.
“As soon as she started singing, I realized that she had tremendous talent,” she said. “And it isn’t simply technical... her soul shines through her voice, and she delivers the music generously and passionately.”
The three began working together two years ago, when Korsakova-Kreyn, who lives in Weehawken, began teaching piano to Borden and LaFond’s children. The group’s fourth member, pianist Leslie Frost, joined after.
“We’ve been living in Union City since 1992, but most of our work was either in Manhattan, or in Newark or Red Bank, places with established artistic communities,” said Borten. “We basically couldn’t believe it when we realized there was a highly trained classical pianist living two blocks away.”
Borten explained that traditionally, when musicians work in large orchestras, they typically practice a piece together only three or four times before a performance. However, with he and LaFond visiting Korsakova-Kreyn’s house two or three times a week, the idea to form a chamber group presented itself almost naturally, and allowed them the opportunity to work extensively on specially-selected chamber pieces, like both of Brahms.
These ongoing collaborations led to the official formation of the players, which performed its first show back in October, a concert of pieces exclusively composed by Franz Schubert. The group has since grown into a loosely organized artistic collective composed of various musicians from the New York and New Jersey area.
“It’s tough because we don’t pay,” said Borten, “so we’ve got to do a fair amount to convince our friends and collaborators to do this, but there’s a draw to do things like this for a lot of musicians. Chamber music offers opportunities that other classical music does not.”
One byproduct of the players’s work is a resurgence of the arts in North Hudson. The group is partially funded by The Arts at St. John’s, a nonprofit organization run by Joe Kolbow, who, along with All Saints Church in Hoboken, rescued St. John’s from financial ruin in the summer of 2011. Since then, the organization has produced theater and cabaret performances, all of which take place in the church.
“We had gotten in touch with Joe about performing there, and the first time I visited the church, I couldn’t help but feel that the stars had truly aligned for us,” said LaFond. “It’s a beautiful building, it’s got great acoustics, and what they’re doing there really works well with us.”
Kolbow said that The Arts at St. John’s number one priority is heralding in a new generation of artists in Union City.
“Lots of these performers that we’ve had live here, but they work primarily in Manhattan,” he said. “There’s sort of this ingrained presumption that there’s no art here, but it’s more that just no one really hangs out here, and that’s what we’re trying to change.”
Achieving this should not be as difficult as Kolbow believes, said Borten.
“You know, there are tons of artists who live in this area. Looking at this resurgence of the arts, it’s easy to say, ‘Hey, this is clearly gentrification,’ but the reality is that it’s not,” he said. “Most of these people have been living here for a very long time.”
You can visit the UCCP’s Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/UnionCityChamberPlayers and The Arts at St. John’s at http://arts-at-st-johns.blogspot.com.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org