The Hatfields and the McCoys, the Montagues and the Capulets lie at the extremes of enmity among families. Less extreme are the tensions between the families of musical instruments — bowed strings, woodwinds, brasses, and the tuned and untuned devices struck with sticks, mallets or fingers. Still, each cultivates its characteristic universe of sound and is most at home with the musical gymnastics of related instruments. Bridging these gaps is one of the missions of Kaleidoscope, a chamber series at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, which mounts four concerts a year: two at Bristol Chapel on Westminster’s Princeton campus and two at Gill Chapel on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus.
Melissa Bohl, who coordinates Kaleidoscope, summarizes the inclusive outlook of the group in a telephone interview from her Princeton home: “We intend to exclude nothing.” Kaleidoscope presents “Music for Midwinter” Friday, December 15, in Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus. For medieval and Renaissance pieces the instrumentation includes krumhorns, hurdy-gurdy, recorders, and other instruments. For George Crumb’s “A Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979,” the composer calls for “prepared piano” and prescribes inserting specified pieces of hardware into the piano’s mechanism in order to alter the conventional sounds of the instrument.
Two J. S. Bach arias related to the Christmas season call for varied musical resources. “Bereite dich Zion” is scored for alto, oboe d’amore (an instrument a third lower than the standard oboe), organ, and cello. “Erfullet, ihr himmlischen Flammen” requires soprano, English horn (a fifth lower than the standard oboe), organ, and cello. Two songs by Johannes Brahms call for alto, viola, and piano. A piece by near-contemporary Swiss composer Frank Martin is scored for soprano, flute, and piano.
Coordinator Bohl, who is the head of the wind department at Westminster Conservatory, the community music school of the Choir College, recounts the genesis of Kaleidoscope, which is now in its third season. “The idea emerged at an annual departmental head faculty lunch,” she says. “We were just having a grand old time fantasizing. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice,’ people said, ‘if we had a concert series that crosses departmental lines and plays pieces that fall in the cracks. It would give faculty a chance to know each other, and give faculty composers a chance to have their pieces performed.’ Half the lunch was spent dreaming about this. Ena Barton (head of the Conservatory Piano Department) proposed the name. She chased me down in the parking lot because she had just thought of it.”
In its short existence Kaleidoscope has been the umbrella for some 40 performing Westminster Conservatory musicians. The participating players, drawing on their own knowledge of repertoire, propose most of the works to be played. Often, Bohl says, a player’s suggestion takes the form of announcing, “I’ve got this piece in my collection that I’ve always wanted to do.” Another possible source is the Internet, where one can search for repertory with a specific combination of instruments.
Curious about the process of preparing a performance, I ask Bohl if there are any particularly touchy performing combinations. “No,” she says, “but it’s always an education for performers to play with instruments unlike their own.”
Then she digs into the details, offering a short tour of the musical world. “Wind instruments and voice have a special affinity,” she says. “Vibrato is similar in oboe and in voice; the richness and projection of timbre are also similar. But with different families of instruments, the ways to make an attack, vary dynamics, and control intonation are different. Being able to match articulation is a problem. A string player can come in very softly with one hair on a bow. But it’s hard for a wind player to come in without an attack.
“Playing extremely softly on a string instrument does not affect its intonation. But when winds play softly, some instruments go up, and some go down. When a flute plays softly, the pitch goes down. When an oboe plays softly, the pitch goes up. It has to do with the whole sound production.
“Winds have no problems with leaps,” Bohl continues. “But string players have to cross strings and keyboard players have to get from one end of the keyboard to the other.”
Balance is an expected problem when unlike instruments play together, Bohl says. Some instruments are relatively loud; and others are relatively soft. “The horn always has to play at the low end of its dynamic possibilities in an ensemble [to avoid overpowering other instruments]; the flute, at its high range. The oboe is in the middle. Strings have a big dynamic range because their pitch and volume are not tied together; they don’t have to work so hard at dynamics.”
Getting down to basics, Bohl points out what lies behind the appealing fire-and-ice pairing of flute and oboe. “The scoring is used so universally that the combination is called the ‘floboe,’” she says. “But the physics of sound makes them sound different. The flute has a strong fundamental and weak overtones. The oboe has a weak fundamental and strong overtones. The clarinet is not used much with the oboe. They both have strong overtones, so there’s less contrast.”
Even after our interview, Bohl remains engaged with our conversation and fires off an informative E-mail. “Just now as I was practicing a Bach aria for December 15, I thought of a perfect conflict of interest that occurs between singers and oboists,” she writes. “In Bach arias oboists want to go on the slow side so they can handle a great many notes, but singers want to go as fast as possible so they don’t run out of breath. Fortunately for oboists, they usually get to set the tempo because arias start with instruments alone and the singer doesn’t come in until later.”
Born in Elgin, Illinois, in 1950, Bohl grew up in a family where varying families of music were part of everyday life. “I grew up playing eclectic music,” she says. She describes her pianist father as an accountant but a musician at heart. Her mother, a voice teacher and choir director, helped steer her three daughters in various musical directions. Bohl’s elder sister is a violinist with the Montreal Symphony. Her younger sister is an accomplished amateur cellist.
Bohl started oboe at age 10. Before then, she had studied piano, and had sung in her mother’s church choirs. “I wanted my own thing,” she says. “My mother suggested that oboe was the most difficult instrument in the orchestra. She said that I would be worth my weight in gold if I learned oboe. I couldn’t resist that concept. It sounded like a challenge.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in oboe with high distinction from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in 1972, she was active with the Laconia, New Hampshire-based “New Art Ensemble,” consisting of soprano, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The ensemble won several National Endowment for the Arts grants and performed in New York City and Washington, D.C., before breaking up in 1975.
While working towards a master’s degree in music history at Indiana’s Notre Dame University, she met her husband, Ronald Sverdlove, a mathematician and amateur horn player. Physically separated while her husband taught mathematics at Notre Dame and she had a faculty appointment at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Bohl began work on a second master’s degree. The couple was reunited in Princeton in 1981 when Sverdlove took a position at Sarnoff Laboratories and Bohl was accepted into Princeton’s master’s program in musicology. Their daughter Rachel, 17, is a senior at Princeton High School. Daughter Madeline, 12, attends seventh grade at the Princeton Charter School. Sverdlove is now completing a doctorate in finance at Rutgers.
After moving to Princeton, Bohl performed with New York-based Fiati Chamber players, an ensemble consisting of soprano, oboe, bassoon, and piano. The name means “winds” in Italian. The ensemble disbanded in 1989. As wind department head at Westminster Conservatory, Bohl oversees wind, brass, and percussion players. Assigning percussionists to the wind department is a common practice among colleges, she says.
In addition to Kaleidoscope, she coordinates two additional Westminster Conservatory concert series: the Gallery Concerts and the Westminster Conservatory at Nassau. The Gallery Concerts, a collaboration between the Conservatory and the Art Gallery at Rider’s Lawrenceville campus, provides an ensemble for two concerts a year during gallery shows. The Westminster Conservatory at Nassau is a series of free half-hour recitals at Princeton’s Nassau Presbyterian Church at 12:15 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month from September to May (except December).
Bohl relishes the role of the three concert series she manages as a double link: between separate musical constituencies, and between the community and the world of music. “Each year the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra bridges departments, bridges the two campuses, bridges the teacher-student divide, and the professional-amateur divide.” Proudly, she says, “We’ve had two generations of a family performing in the orchestra.”
“There are so many chamber music series in this area. Why do we need another?” she asks rhetorically. “Because Westminster Conservatory is part of the community,” she says. “It’s important to the Conservatory for building an esprit-de-corps, and for incorporating itself into the life of the community. The Conservatory involves 2,000 families and more than 3,000 students. This is not a series where world class artists come in for an afternoon and then leave. Students can see their teacher perform. For me it makes a difference that we are known to the people who come to listen.”
Kaleidoscope Chamber Series, Friday, December 15, 8 p.m., Westminster Choir College, Bristol Chapel, Music for Midwinter features Westminster Conservatory faculty members performing seasonal music spanning six centuries for voice, flute, oboe, viola, cello, keyboard, and an assortment of medieval and Renaissance instruments. $15. 609-921-2663.
Faculty members include Danielle Sinclair, soprano; Linda Mindlin, mezzo soprano; Kevin Willois, flute; Melissa Bohl, oboe d’amore and English horn; Margorie Selden, viola; Melissa Burton Anderson, cello; Clipper Erickson and Marianne Lauffer, piano; and Gavin Black, organ. Tim Urban and Bohl will play recorder, crumhorn, and hurdy-gurdy.