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Rotating Chambers

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For 20 years, the Richmond Chamber Players had a cozy arrangement. The group, composed mainly of Richmond Symphony musicians, staged Sunday afternoon musicales during August in the auditorium of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The musicians got work during the orchestra's summer off-season, as well as the chance to devise their own programs. And Richmond's classical audience -- at least the portion that hadn't decamped to Urbanna or Hatteras — got live music during the dog days.

Then in the fall of 2005, the museum demolished its old North Wing, and with it the auditorium, as part of its ongoing expansion project. The Chamber Players found a new home in Turner Hall Chapel at St. Catherine's School, but then the school decided to renovate the chapel.

This summer there's relief: The group will perform at Bon Air Presbyterian Church. (The series is still an "off-site" presentation of the museum, which handles ticket sales.)

"It seems to be the fate of Richmond's musicians to get moved around by construction projects," muses John Walter, the pianist who directs the Chamber Players. "The symphony players are used to it" — the orchestra has performed in a variety of temporary venues since the Carpenter Center closed for renovation three years ago — "and it's easier for us," he says. "Chamber music is more portable."

Chamber music is also more popular here than it used to be. The better-known touring classical performers — Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, Stephen Hough, the Takacs Quartet and Beaux Arts Trio — appear here in chamber programs; and the Shanghai Quartet, performing regularly at the University of Richmond since 1989, further immersed local listeners in the chamber literature.

"You could say the Chamber Players started it all," says David Niethamer, the former principal clarinetist of the symphony, now teaching at UR. The chamber ensemble, founded by the late Raymond Montoni, gave its first concerts in the mid-1970s. Niethamer joined about 10 years later and was the ensemble's director in the '90s. "In those early years," he recalls, "there wasn't much chamber music here played on a professional level, and [listeners] who weren't musicians themselves didn't have much exposure to the literature."

Walter, a Juilliard-schooled pianist who heads the math department at the Maggie Walker Governor's School, began performing with the Chamber Players shortly after moving here in 1993. (His wife, Michele Walter, held administrative posts with the symphony and the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation.) He became the group's director in 1997; during his tenure, the Interlude concerts began to play regularly to full houses, and the series strengthened its base of donors and patrons. It now operates on a budget of about $25,000 — of which, Walter says, "85 percent goes to paying the musicians."

"The audience has grown with us" in both size and receptiveness to new or different music, Walter says. His conviction may be put to the test by two of this summer's programs, in which modern composers (Bart¢k, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Ginastera) do not share the bill with any old masters.

In one of the series' highlights Aug. 19, Niethamer will join Walter and violinist Susy Yim in Bart¢k's "Contrasts," written in 1938 for Benny Goodman. Niethamer says he remembers when "this piece was considered really out there. Playing it required a different approach, and listening to it, for most people, was quite a challenge. Now, a generation later, we're more familiar with Bart¢k's harmonic and rhythmic language. Many of us have heard Hungarian folk music, which inspired Bart¢k. So it's not the otherworldly experience it once was."

And as Walter says, chamber music's intimacy and give-and-take among the musicians makes the musical experience more accessible. "We've found that's especially true of young people," he says, "who may not know what to expect from the music but respond to the experience of live music-making." S

The Richmond Chamber Players will present their Interlude 2007 series at 3 p.m. each Sunday in August at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets are $56 for the series, $16 per concert, with discounts for seniors and members of VMFA. Admission is free for those younger than 18. 340-1405.

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.

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