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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Summer’s Musical Escape

Now that the sun shines well into the evening, it seems

unnatural to think about the days when winter darkness descended by

4:30 in the afternoon. Gone now are thoughts of bundling up, staying

inside, and consuming hot meals. Summer is here and it’s time to lighten

up and expand.

Thanks to Princeton’s Chamber Music Underground, four concerts provide

a nearby surrogate for an expensive trip to a distant music festival.

With friends and family, it’s possible to sit in the shade of some

very stately trees on the Princeton University campus and enjoy the

illusion of being on vacation. That self-packed picnic basket could

contain whatever best suits the participants: peanut butter and jelly

sandwiches for the kids, truffle-based delicacies and champagne for

the gourmets, or diet soda and salad without dressing for the dieters.

And then, after dining to one’s heart’s content, one could move inside

to Richardson Auditorium to hear music played by groups likely to

have a big future.

Musical excellence is a fundamental requirement for the concert series.

The now world-renowned Emerson and Tokyo quartets played at the summer

concerts well before their names became household words.

With the blessing of a family-friendly organizing committee, children

turn up frequently at the concerts. Some youngsters are surprisingly

amenable to hearing an evening’s worth of classical music. Some, far

beyond bedtime, nap during performances. Some families leave before

the concert is over.

Thrift is the watchword for audiences at this music series. Now in

its 34th season, the concerts charge no admission fee. They have been

supported by annual contributions from individuals and businesses,

and by government funding for the arts. Princeton University shelters

contributors with its tax-deductible umbrella, and offers in-kind

benefits for the concerts.

Tickets are required for the concerts and can be obtained starting

at 6 p.m. the night of the performance. A single individual may obtain

up to four tickets. The line is sometimes long, but it is always friendly.

Individuals with disabilities need not line up; they may make ticket

arrangements at 609-631-7884 by 5 p.m. the Friday before each concert.

Performers in this year’s summer concert series are the Jacques Thibaud

Trio, Tuesday, June 18; the Avalon String Quartet, Tuesday, July 9;

the Shanghai String Quartet, Tuesday July 16; and the Ludwig Quartet

Tuesday, July 30. One string trio, and three string quartets. All

performances are at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.

Richardson itself is a good destination for out-of-town visitors.

Its eye-catching dome and Victorian detail provides a visual journey

to a time more than a century ago when classical references expressed

a striving for culture and knowledge. Its acoustics are memorable.

The Tokyo Quartet chose Richardson as the site for its recording of

the complete Beethoven string quartet cycle. The venue has a high

profile in the memory of Philip Douvier, violist of the Thibaud Trio,

which opens this years’ series. He calls Richardson "one of the

very best concert halls we ever played in."

As the prime movers for the June 18 concert, the Thibaud

trio has invited pianist William Hicks and bassist Alvin Brehm to

join them. The members of the trio are Burkhard Maiss, violin; Philip

Douvier, viola; and Uwe Hirth-Schmidt, cello. The program consists

of Beethoven’s String Trio in D Major, Op. 9, No. 2; Johann Nepomuk

Hummel’s Piano Quintet with double bass in E Major, Op. 87; and Schubert’s

Piano Quintet with double bass in A Major, D667 ("The Trout").

The Thibaud has made a point of performing by heart. However, they

extend their hospitality to guests by bending their normal protocol.

In a telephone interview from his home in Berlin, Germany, violist

Douvier says, "We don’t force our guests to play by memory."

"For us, playing by memory is a side effect of rehearsing together.

A lot of people think that playing by memory is dangerous. But as

far as we’re concerned, the risks are not worth talking about. We’ve

had several years experience playing by memory. It’s not dangerous.

The only thing is minor memory lapses — missing two notes."

"Most of the audiences like to see us playing from memory because

they feel more involved in the music. There’s nothing on stage to

distract them. They can take part in what’s going on. This is what

we’re looking for."

Although chamber music performances without music are not without

precedent, they are rare. Within the last generation the Quartetto

Italiano performed by heart. "They are one of our favorite groups,"

Douvier says. "They’re one of the reasons we play by memory."

Creating a string trio is a more unusual move than founding a string

quartet. I prod Douvier by asking him, "What’s the matter? Couldn’t

you find another violinist?" He explains that they tried.

"The first people who met were Burkhard, the violinist, and me.

We played string quartets together and wanted to form our own quartet.

The people we asked refused. They thought it was too risky, and that

it would be more stable to play in an orchestra."

"Ironically, the situation now for orchestral musicians is worse

than for chamber groups. They don’t rely on government support like

orchestras do. In Berlin there were formerly 10 orchestras. But smaller

orchestras have had to combine and get rid of half their personnel.

There are many unemployed orchestral musicians in Berlin. We’re lucky."

The trio was founded at the Berlin School of Art in 1994, and first

toured together that same year. "We found out that we could add

something interesting to music," Douvier says. "We have an

unusual approach. We’re never worried about being technically perfect.

The main thing is to have fun, and play the pieces that we like. Playing

the right notes, in tune, and with the right rhythm is not necessarily

exciting. We chose the name `Jacques Thibaud’ because he played in

a romantic style that was very personal."

The trio toured in the United States for the first time in 1997. In

1999 it won the Bonn Chamber Music Competition.

"For us chamber music is the only choice," Douvier says. "It’s

the most interesting music, and we don’t mind traveling. We like this

part of our job."

"Some people believe that if you have a family, traveling is difficult.

We have the opposite experience. We spend four months on tour, and

have the rest of the time for our families at home. If we’re at home

our wives can get out." Douvier is the father of two children

— Jakob, born in 1999, and Benjamin, less than a year old. "I’m

absolutely addicted to these two boys," he says.

His wife, who studied singing, pursued hotel management in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

At the moment she has taken on the job of managing the trio. "She’s

doing very well," Douvier says. "She’s getting us more engagements

than our German management did."

Douvier was born in 1970 in Berlin to teachers in German high schools.

His father taught history; his mother, German and French. Douvier

can’t account for his French surname. His family comes from the Black

Forest. "There must have been a French-German love story some

time ago," he surmises. "But I don’t know anything about it."

He started violin at six, motivated by the belief that his elder brother

detested the instrument. At 14, he switched to viola to play in a

youth orchestra. "I had bad violin teachers," he says. "They

were of the Russian school. They believed that playing the violin

has to hurt, and that you have to practice eight hours a day. It took

me until I was 25 to figure out that they were wrong.."

The ages of the Thibaud trio cluster within three years of each other.

All three artists began their musical studies at about kindergarten

age. They are lovers of fine food and drink. They share a playful

approach to life. The viewer of their website may click on serious

biographies or funny ones.

Opening the Summer Chamber Music series, they serve up appealing pieces

from the chamber repertoire. But they’ve left the grimness behind.

Their approach incorporates froth, individuality, and quirkiness.

It’s a perfect match for the summer season.

— Elaine Strauss

Jacques Thibaud Trio, Princeton University Summer Concerts,

Richardson Auditorium, 609-631-7884. Free. Tuesday, June 18, 8

p.m.

Series continues with Avalon String Quartet, Tuesday,

July 9. Shanghai String Quartet, Tuesday, July 16. Ludwig

Quartet , Tuesday, July 30, 8 p.m.


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