Chamber Music Deconstructed by Kai

Kai Christiansen is a musicologist and founder of Known for his engaging and passionate delivery, he is a sought after lecturer for many of the Bay Area's premier chamber music series. ESF is fortunate to have Kai a part of many of our events!

Kai Christiansen talks about Ravel Trio at an ESF concert, 2015/Photo: Scot Goodman

Kai Christiansen talks about Ravel Trio at an ESF concert, 2015/Photo: Scot Goodman

by Kai Christiansen

I have obsessively loved music all my life. I have explored many genres in great depth but have now come to spend most of my time with my favorite: classical chamber music. Let me share a few thoughts about it.

I start with the word “classical” because that immediately helps define the genre to most of us even with a very casual sense of musical culture.  To me, classical means a kind of “long form”, foreground music composed for a traditional palette of acoustic instruments primarily distinguished by the string family (violin, viola, cello and bass), colored by woodwinds, brass and reeds, and frequently incorporating the comprehensive expanse of the modern grand piano, in the case of each instrument, exploiting its full, virtuosic potential.

The classical canon, or repertoire, features the familiar, historical composers you likely know about (Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms . . .) as well as living composers still writing today. It is not a dead museum relic; quite the opposite. The idea of “long form” music just means a typical “piece” of classical music lasts between 20 and 40 minutes typically divided into multiple “tracks” called movements. In the modern world where one is constantly bombarded by an ever-changing sea of multi-media snippets, the capacity to concentrate on this long form is severely challenged. But, ultimately, this is music to be experienced in the foreground as the main attraction: no distractions, conversation, attendant activity, dancing, singing, acting, religious ritual or whatever. It is like watching a movie except you are listening with your ears. (Mobile phones OFF please.)

That classical chamber music tends to be predominantly instrumental and “merely” sensual—non-verbal, non-visual and essentially “abstract” without being illustrative or having any real “meaning” other that its own sonic existence—makes it all the more mysterious, magical and miraculous. It comprises a unique human experience.

Within this admittedly broad history, tradition and style of classical music lay a particularly intimate and intense sub-genre called “chamber music.”  Chamber music is simply classical music for a small group of players, typically two to six. Unlike the more popular classical music featuring a large symphony orchestra or, at the opposite end, a single, solo pianist, chamber music gathers just a few musicians where each individual instrument has its own completely vivid role within a very fine balance of intimate, highly interactive collaboration.  The music is clear, finely etched and meticulously crafted to highlight all the beauty and richly expressive nuance of each instrument as they combine into an elegantly integrated composite creating patterns, textures, forms and narratives of unparalleled artistic excellence. As with all music, at its core is a delicious and often profound emotional experience.

All the great composers wrote chamber music (Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms . . .), and some might argue that their chamber music is their finest music of any kind. As a genre and tradition, chamber music seems to draw the very best from its composers who often turn to it for their most personal, passionate and intellectually stimulating creations. Nonetheless, chamber music tends to be overshadowed by orchestral music, and classical music in general by far more popular forms. To the typical musical lover, it is largely if not totally hidden from view. Even a brief exposure does not do it justice: like any worthy musical genre of distinction, chamber music is rich and deep and offers much to explore, needing some time to get to know, to “open up.” As with tasting wine or respectfully pursuing a martial art, cultivation leads to greater capacity and ever-deeper satisfaction.

Fiercely dopting a quest to plumb the depths of this art for myself and to take on a mission of passionately sharing this extraordinary music with others, I chose to become a musicologist, meaning, I write and lecture about chamber music doing whatever I can to promote and highlight the genre. In the process, I have created a website that I call “the chamber music exploratorium” at Here, I have combined my skills as a professional software engineer with my love and knowledge of chamber music in an effort to give chamber music a “first-class” presence on the high-tech communication medium of our time: the web. In the end, however, it is all intended as a vehicle to take you right to the heart of the chamber music experience: a live performance right before your very ears.  

This brings me to the Ensemble San Francisco. I first met Rebecca Jackson, one of its founding members, in a bar in the mission district.  It’s not like it sounds: she and I were both at the Revolution Café hearing chamber music and started chatting about our shared interest. Ever since, I have worked with Rebecca for several seasons of her fabulous Music in May festival in Santa Cruz, and that has led to several collaborations with Ensemble San Francisco. I am an avid fan and admirer of ESF and welcome any opportunity to be part of their various wonderful enterprises. In particular, I enjoy their fresh ideas for making chamber music more accessible through creative programming, alternative venues, a flexible stable of musicians with a variety of instrumentation and their consistently outstanding musicianship.

ESF teamwork on display! Kai not only shared his insights at an ESF holiday chamber party, he also helped turn Jonah's pages.

ESF teamwork on display! Kai not only shared his insights at an ESF holiday chamber party, he also helped turn Jonah's pages.

This last point regarding musicianship and chamber music (and classical music in general) is worth emphasizing. Chamber music is, on one hand, “portable” music with great appeal for amateur performers in relaxed, domestic settings: it reflects the finest traditions of people making music for themselves and their friends. But the great chamber music masterworks make extraordinary demands on the musicians and have, since the time of Beethoven, been composed for the finest of professional players. The difference between an “average” and a stellar performance is vast and the best of chamber music demands truly great musicians who frankly need to leverage innate talent, passionate drive and years of disciplined practice and study to reach a state of professional capability and refinement. Ensemble San Francisco has consistently offered excellent live musical performances of the highest caliber and, as such, offers the finest way to experience this art of chamber music. As a vibrant and vital ensemble active and accessible in my very neighborhood, I applaud ESF for keeping chamber music alive in my life and dream with hope and excitement about how they will share this very special music with all of you too.

Outreach at Juvenile Hall

During the 2014-15 season, ESF performed regularly for the youth at the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall.

Fall of 2015 Rebecca and Moni joined violist Tiffany Richardson and cellist Frederic Rosselet in part of Sound Impact‘s Project Imagine, a residency at the Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall. “There’s something in music,” said Jackson, “that, hearing it up close and personal as opposed to something on a recording, that I have to believe is engaging them in a deeper way. As for us, you go in. You’re locked in, and you realize that you don’t know what they’ve done (to get in here). They’re just kids and they’re locked in here. That’s heartbreaking. And then you play this music that you love, it does stir up a lot of emotions…” To read more about this special experience, check out the full article in the Santa Cruz Sentinal, The Sound Inside.

In the past season, musicians of ESF performed at the Juvenile Hall:

  • 2014 – December
  • 2015 – April, May, September, October and November

Behind the Scenes

Two of ESF's favorite volunteers, Marco Rozzano and Jess Lin./Photo: Scot Goodman

Two of ESF's favorite volunteers, Marco Rozzano and Jess Lin./Photo: Scot Goodman

Ensemble San Francisco relies on many volunteers to help keep everything running smoothly. We are very appreciative of the support we receive and highly value the friendships formed with each volunteer. We can always use more assistance so if you are interested in joining our team, please email

  • Front of house activities at concerts like ushering, greeting guests, and taking tickets
  • Back stage activities like page turning for Christine or helping with stage set up
  • Posting flyers to help advertise 
  • Any other creative way you think you might help ESF!

Armando's Rhumba Transformed!

Through the generosity of David Kaun, ESF commissioned Emmy Award-Winning composer John Wineglass to arrange the famous tune off of Chick Corea's critically acclaimed album "My Spanish Heart." Octa Rhumba was premiered March 2014 at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose. 

Rehearsing Octa Rhumba/Photo: Scot Goodman

Rehearsing Octa Rhumba/Photo: Scot Goodman

Wineglass writes:
Octa-Rhumba is a composition/arrangement based on the theme of Chick Corea's Armando's Rhumba [1976]. It is in a simple A-B-A form stating the melody and going through several improvisations of the chord structure (like a standard jazz tune). The B section is a develop- mental section taking on new original melodic ideas inspired by 'if Corea was to approach this as Beethoven did' along with my own musical quotes of Lloyd-Weber thrown in for an eclectic mix of rumba, mystery, masquerade, macabre - a cadre of inspirations. 

One of the challenges at the request of the group was writing a work where some parts could be interchanged if a player was missing (ESF is a dynamic group of performers not always together at the same time). So doubling was something done on purpose, strategically. In constructing the work and thinking about sonority and composite color, I had to keep in mind that perhaps a flute might double or replace a vio- lin, and likewise with a shifting ensemble with (or without) clarinet, oboe, horn, etc.. This gives the audience a different experience every time (due to the shifting ensemble) while still keeping the consistency of the work. At the premiere performance, I added a cajon (a la myself as the performer) to keep everything together rhythmically. 

John Christopher Wineglass (®Emmy Award-Winning Composer) has performed on five continents, before every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan and with several ®Oscar and ®Grammy- Award Winning artists, including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Jamie Foxx to name a few. As a recipient of three (two consecutive) ®Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction and Composition for a Drama Series, and threeASCAP Film and Television Music Awards, Mr. Wineglass holds seven ®EMMY nominations.