Taking a bow: Chatter's innovative chamber music

David Felberg, photo Luke E. Montavon/The New Mexican

Give as many as 70 classical music performances each year, but without having a single full-time staff member. Make sure that challenging pieces from the 20th and 21st centuries comprise the largest part of your repertory. Schedule almost all your concerts on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Don’t spend more than 1 percent of your budget on marketing and promotion. Don’t announce your concert repertory and performers until about eight weeks before each performance. Don’t bother with a subscription campaign. Don’t even have a phone number.

It sounds like an unlikely formula for success, but the Albuquerque-based classical music group Chatter has made it work successfully for more than seven years. By challenging almost every norm in an industry that sometimes focuses on safe repertoire and conventional marketing, Chatter has gotten ahead of the curve.

“Our model really harmonizes with today’s trends,” says violinist David Felberg, the group’s co-founder and artistic director. “People want more flexibility and aren’t buying tickets so far in advance. It also helps us stay really fresh and spontaneous, since we can take advantage of opportunities as they come up. Sometimes what seemed like a great idea at first doesn’t seem so good four or five months later, but then you’re stuck with it in a more traditional approach. We aren’t.”

Sixteen months ago, Chatter launched a local presence with a performance series at SITE Santa Fe. Concerts take place on the second Saturday of each month and follow a unique template: a musical performance of 35 to 40 minutes, a 10-minute spoken-word segment (usually a poetry reading), and a two-minute “celebration of silence.” It’s a format that’s been a Chatter hallmark for more than 11 years in Albuquerque, where the events are offered on 50 Sunday mornings each year at Las Puertas community performance space.

Chatter’s audiences know they aren’t just going to be hearing duets, trios, and quartets. In fact, the programs offer some surprisingly large-scale works. The group’s most recent Albuquerque program featured 17 musicians playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major and Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto for Chamber Orchestra.

Contemporary opera is also a Chatter hallmark, including such adventurous choices as Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, a notoriously difficult piece that received an impressive staged performance here in September.

Accessibility and community are important aspects of Chatter’s mission. The top ticket price for the morning concerts is $16, and the group eschews traditional venues in favor of galleries at the Albuquerque Museum and SITE Santa Fe, as well as Las Puertas. It’s also financially efficient organization, able to pay its musicians competitive fees for its 70 or so annual events on a budget of just $325,000. Its most recent financial statements show that Chatter devotes more than 85 percent of its budget to artistic expenses, compared to the local average of 75 percent. Management and general expenses account for just over 13 percent of expenses. Less than 2 percent of the budget goes to fundraising costs.

Part of its operating efficiency comes from a cost-sharing structure with Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest: Tony Zancanella serves as executive director for both groups, and Chatter maintains a small office within the opera company’s administrative space at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Chatter’s roots go back to 2002, when it was founded by Felberg and the late Eric Walters, a cellist and composer, as a new music ensemble offering four or five performances each year. Six years later, Felberg got involved with a then-separate activity called Church of Beethoven, led by cellist Felix Wurman.

Wurman was a child prodigy who studied with the renowned soloist Jacqueline du Pré, after which he renounced a traditional concert career in favor of a touring group called Domus. He later moved to Albuquerque, where he played with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and founded The Noisy Neighbors Chamber Orchestra, which played in a geodesic dome on a parking lot in nearby Cedar Crest.

After playing for a church service in 2007, Wurman hit upon the basic idea for the Church of Beethoven, an hour-long event that combined music, silence, a spoken-word reading, and a free-will offering. In 2012, it was combined with Felberg and Walters’ new music activities under the Chatter umbrella.

Santa Feans are most familiar with Felberg from his work as concertmaster for the Santa Fe Symphony. But he’s also the associate concertmaster of the New Mexico Philharmonic, a member of the Santa Fe Pro Musica orchestra, and leader of the University of New Mexico’s new music ensemble. He’s a conductor, too, whose most recent gigs were sets of Handel’s Messiah with the New Mexico Philharmonic and performances of The Nutcracker with the New Mexico Ballet, both in December 2019.

For clarinetist James Shields, the opportunity to work as Chatter’s associate artistic director (and as a frequent performer) was impossible to pass up, even though it has meant commuting from Portland, Oregon, where he’s the principal clarinet in the Oregon Symphony. Before he was in Toronto, where he held the same position in the Canadian Opera Company orchestra. Shields got involved via the Church of Beethoven while he was also with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.

“David is super fun to work with and to brainstorm with,” Shields says. “We’re in touch almost every day, most of the time by email or text messages. He loves exploring things that start out as dumb, funny ideas and after a while lead you to something really good. It’s like learning to play an instrument. You go through stages and have to embrace failure to make progress. He’s also remarkably chill about not getting caught up in power struggles that happen in lots of places.

“I definitely love playing in a big orchestra, but my work with Chatter stimulates a different part of the brain,” Shield says. “There’s more creativity, more discussion, and more give-and-take, especially in hashing out interpretations. Chatter and the Oregon Symphony are complementary activities, a kind of yin-yang combination that makes me feel like a complete artist.”

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