Students at the 2011 PRIZM Chamber Music Festival
For the uninitiated, the term “chamber music” might be scary, so let’s contextualize it. Popular music is what you hear on the radio — Billboard charts and whatnot — and Oldies are popular music selections from the mid-twentieth-century. Classical music is older Oldies, chamber music refers to the more intimate venue and group size for playing classical, and — guess what? — classical music was just the popular music of its day.
So, in that light, the PRIZM Chamber Music Festival this June is like a Bonnaroo for classical music, not some stuffy, pretentious event to avoid at all costs. It’s almost guaranteed no one will be wearing a powdered wig.
The festival is the annual celebration put on by the Memphis-based PRIZM Ensemble, which itself is the brainchild of executive director Lecolion Washington Jr. and artistic director Carina Nyberg Washington. The married pair — he’s from Texas, she’s from Sweden, this year’s Memphis in May honored country — make for a local chamber-music power couple.
Making chamber music accessible is one of the stated goals of the PRIZM Ensemble. “Nobody wants to go to a concert and not be smart enough,” Lecolion says.
“We try to take away the hoity-toity part of it,” Carina says. “It’s not where, ‘this is the stage and you’re the audience and you need to sit down and be quiet.’”
Lecolion adds, “We try to show that not only is it not intimidating, it also can be tons of fun. There aren’t all these rules about when to clap. Those things turn people off. If you want to clap and throw babies in the air, I say go ahead.”
Even if you’re an old hand at chamber music, the PRIZM Ensemble might still surprise you. The assemblage of instruments in PRIZM isn’t typical for chamber music. Usually, a chamber ensemble will be a woodwind quintet or a string quartet. PRIZM utilizes a nontraditional mix of instruments, allowing for arrangements that are much less well known but no less impressive.
The festival slate is packed with great public performances throughout the week at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in East Memphis, and it climaxes with a Saturday evening concert in collaboration with Opera Memphis. But that’s not all or even most of what the PRIZM Chamber Music Festival is. It’s actually an educational experience for many amateur musicians in the Mid-South.
PRIZM’s catchment area includes local middle and high school marching bands and youth symphonies and orchestras. All classical instruments are welcomed for the festival, except piano. Participants must be 12 years or older and have about two years’ experience on their instrument. That doesn’t mean all “students” are kids, though. Adult amateurs participate in the festival as well.
PRIZM holds placement performances — not auditions — to determine a student’s level and put them in an appropriate group. There are no first chair/second chair dynamics, no competition. “We don’t want someone who has played for two years playing with someone who is about to graduate and go off to Juilliard,” Lecolion says. “It’s unfair to both.”
PRIZM Ensemble coaches students throughout the year, including a project currently under way with kids at Hickory Ridge Middle School. Four student musicians will be awarded full scholarships to participate in the 2013 PRIZM Festival. This year marks the festival’s fifth anniversary and will feature about 50 students. Until a few weeks before the festival begins, PRIZM is still accepting students. Go to prizmensemble.com for registration; full tuition is $325, and scholarships are awarded based on need.
Each day, students attend classes on music theory and history and career advice from practicing professionals. Festival faculty — which includes university professors, orchestra players, freelance musicians, film-score composers, and a member of the West Point military band — will rotate in and coach students in small groups.
Lecolion says mentorship is a key component of why he wanted to start the festival in the first place, to give young musicians an opportunity he didn’t have when he was growing up. The festival teaches such “soft” skills as comfort with public speaking, showing up on time, discipline, being prepared, and taking personal pride in the product. Student musicians also learn things typically associated more with athletic pursuits, such as the importance of the individual in a team dynamic. “The nature of chamber music is that you’re responsible for your part,” Lecolion says. “Musicians can learn teamwork, because you’re responsible for your part for the whole group. If you don’t play your notes, they’re not there.”
Seeing students improve over the festival week is the most rewarding part for the faculty. “Hearing students progress from rehearsal one to their Saturday performance blows my mind every summer,” Lecolion says.
“After rehearsal one I think, ‘I hope this works out,’” he says with a laugh. “But every year we watch them come in on Monday and give great performances on Saturday.” And every year, Lecolion adds, “There’s a kid who shows up who doesn’t have much experience and doesn’t know a lot about the music, but by the end is a totally different person.”
PRIZM Chamber Music Festival, June 10th-15th, at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church (5530 Shady Grove Road, Memphis). Admission to all performances is “pay what you can.” Go to prizmensemble.com for a complete schedule, student registration, and more information.