Arts Feature

Innovative Chamber Groups Take Center Stage at First Thursday

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
The Fourth Wall | photo by Mark Lee

For all but the world’s top classical musicians — those rarified players who might, against great odds, find success as soloists — career options in the classical world have traditionally been limited. Musicians could get hired by an orchestra, take a job as a school music director — or, perhaps, juggle some combination of the two, along with teaching private lessons and playing occasional chamber performances.

But there’s a new mentality sweeping the classical world: musical entrepreneurship. Partly out of necessity as steady orchestra gigs have become harder to come by — and partly out of an openness to new possibilities — players and composers are looking for new ways to sustain themselves. That has musicians striking out on their own, turning their part-time chamber ensembles into serious musical endeavors and learning more about the business and marketing of music more than they ever have before.

Savvy Musician Chamber Performances
Tapp’s Art Center (1644 Main St.)

Thursday, June 5
Warp Trio - 7:15 p.m.
Ensemble 39 - 7:45 p.m.
Duo Anova - 8:20 p.m.
invoke - 8:40 p.m.
The Fourth Wall - 9:15 p.m.

Enter the Savvy Musician in Action, an intense four-day workshop aimed at training classical musicians to take their chamber ensembles to the next level. Presented June 5-8 at the University of South Carolina, the workshop puts musicians through a unique and rigorous regimen of entrepreneurial training, mentorship sessions, peer teaching, mini-lectures and, ultimately, a pitch-session competition. This year’s event will feature 60 participants from 18 states and four countries.

Where does the public fit in?

For most, the draw will be performances by last year’s Savvy Musician competition winners at the Tapp’s Arts Center as part of the First Thursday series. Among them are last year’s first place winner, the Indiana-based Fourth Wall Ensemble, which combines contemporary composition with choreography, literally — the group is comprised of a flutist who also dances, a trombonist who’s also a choreographer, and a percussionist who narrates. Also performing will be string quartet invoke, which focuses on contemporary repertoire and cross-disciplinary collaboration; Warp Trio, a piano-cello-violin ensemble that bills itself as existing “at the intersection of a chamber music ensemble, rock band and art project”; Ensemble 39, a group of strings and wind players that touches on everything from klezmer to old-time fiddle music; and Duo Anova, a cello-guitar duo from New York City.

Part of the purpose of the workshop is to help groups understand which aspect of their music and performance will be of most interest to others.

“Most groups don’t know what the best thing about them is,” says David Cutler, associate professor of musical entrepreneurship at USC and director of the Savvy Musician in Action. When they finish the four-day workshop, though, they will. “You’ll learn how to take your chamber group to the next level of your career,” Cutler says.

In putting together this type of workshop — and in emphasizing musical entrepreneurship — USC is at the forefront of the world of higher education. Only two schools in the country have full-time musical entrepreneurship positions, Cutler says — and USC was the first.

“There are lots of workshops to help artists with their careers, and they are very valuable,” Cutler says. But this one is different, he says, for its emphasis on innovation, experiential learning and on using all of the arts.

“We’ll be getting active, getting our hands dirty,” Cutler says. “Think Shark Tank meets higher education.”

In their time at USC, musicians will hear from actor Vicky Saye Henderson about how to use theater to sell an idea, and they’ll learn principles of visual communication from designers. They’ll also get advice and feedback from Margaret Lioi, CEO of Chamber Music America; Dirk Brown, director of USC’s Faber Entrepreneurship Center; Howard Herring, president of the New World Symphony Orchestra; Ranaan Meyer, bassist of Time for Three; and pianist Kimball Gallagher, among others.

For musicians who might be intimidated by the idea that they should also be business people, Cutler has some words of comfort. He once attended an entrepreneurship conference where he was the only musician there — and he earned first place in the pitch contest.

“What I learned from being way out of my element,” he says, “was that as an artist, we know how to perform and put on a show.”

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