Chamber Music in the Great Outdoors

Chamber Music in the Great Outdoors

Am I going to get claustrophobic?

This was the question on Ellen Breakfield-Glick’s mind as she descended into the darkness of Mammoth Cave, her clarinet safely stowed in its case on her back, her arms full as she and her fellow musicians carried in all of their equipment, including chairs and music stands.

Mammoth Cave was just the first stop of a two-month tour of national parks across the U.S. last summer. A septet, Music in the American Wild was the brainchild of flutist and director Emlyn Johnson, a school friend of Breakfield-Glick. Johnson had contacted her a full two years earlier to see if she might be game for the trek into nature.

“She said, ‘I have this crazy idea. Would you be interested?’”

The crazy idea stemmed from a National Endowment for the Arts grant to celebrate the centennial of the United States National Park Service. The septet played all new music, commissioned specifically for the centennial. The eleven composers were given instructions: each piece must be written for flute, clarinet, horn, two violins, viola, cello, and percussion, with the understanding that there would be no conductor and that the pieces would be performed outdoors.

“It was cool to see how creative people can be given a set of restraints,” Breakfield-Glick enthused. “The pieces were totally different — there was nothing that sounded the same.”

A longtime chamber music aficionado, Breakfield-Glick is a member of CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra. On faculty at Cleveland State University, she also regularly travels to perform with the Michigan Philharmonic Orchestra. She had never been on tour with a chamber group before.

“It was exciting! Everyone was so enthusiastic and excited to be there. I had such a nice time. It was fun to experience all these amazing places with a group of people working hard together. I love playing in an orchestra,” she added, “but I find I can be my truest self in a chamber-music setting. I like that you can be very experimental, and I love the collaborative spirit. I think it’s a special and intimate way to play music with your colleagues and your friends.”

Every member of the septet, and all eleven composers, were either alumni or faculty at the Eastman School of Music, where Johnson and Breakfield-Glick first played chamber music together as undergraduates.

“We were partially sponsored by the NEA, but we had a lot of support from Eastman in terms of advertising and concert spaces. We had a send-off concert at the George Eastman Museum, which was fun because we got to play outside. It actually rained on us! We played twenty-seven concerts and the only time we had rain was in Rochester [New York].” 

Weather played a significant role in the tour. The group chose combinations of their eleven-piece repertoire to suit the conditions they found at each venue: the windswept slopes of Washington State’s Mount Rainier precluded quiet pieces, and a concert at Purchase Knob in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee border, was kept short to avoid an incoming thunder storm.

The challenges of outdoor playing also led some members of the group to make unconventional choices with their instruments: the string instruments were all made of carbon fibre, and Breakfield-Glick chose to use a synthetic clarinet — the Backun Alpha.

“I wanted to sound like me, but I wasn’t going to take my MoBas in a cave. I called Morrie [Backun] and said, ‘What should I do? Should I play an old clarinet?’” He suggested she try the Alpha.

“I was blown away by how great it is,” she said. “I put my MoBa barrel and bell on it, and that made it even more comfortable, because I was playing my own equipment but I didn’t have to be concerned about the body of my MoBa.”

Breakfield-Glick also did not have to worry about how her instrument would respond to the various, sometimes extreme, conditions. “We played all kinds of places, and I never had a single technical issue with my instrument the entire time. If I had taken any wooden instrument, there’s no way I could say that; somehow it would have been affected.”

Still, she admitted to some uncertainty at first. “I was nervous, but after about two days, our cellist said, ‘Ellen, what are you going to do about the environment?’ I said, ‘Oh, this is actually a plastic clarinet,’ and he couldn’t believe it! I didn’t put it away after the tour,” she added. “I still travel with it, and I use it sometimes when demonstrating in lessons. It’s my favourite little thing now.”

The instruments weren’t the only things that had to be hardy — the players themselves faced unusual challenges. Their initial tour included seven locations, from the send-off concert in Rochester, New York; to an open field in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia; to the damp halls of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. There was a subsequent tour of Washington State’s national parks; they played at an elevation of 6,400 feet on Mount Rainier and hiked into the rugged North Cascades National Park to perform in the mist. “The concerts went well, but we definitely had to be aware of our environment. Every single time was an adventure.”

It was an adventure for the audience, as well; hearing new music in the middle of a rainforest is a unique experience. “Some concerts were more formal, but a lot of them ended up being interactive. We got so many questions: ‘Are you guys doing another tour?’ ‘When does your recording come out?’ There was a lot of excitement in the audience. We’re told that it’s hard to get people to come to new-music concerts,” Breakfield-Glick said, growing thoughtful. “I don’t think I agree with that. Sometimes we had three to four hundred people, in the middle of a park! There’s definitely an audience for classical music. It’s just a matter of timing and finding creative ways to communicate with them.” 

A longtime supporter of new compositions, Breakfield-Glick is now a passionate new-music performer and hopes this experience will lead to more demand for these pieces and their composers. “Basically my whole summer was playing new music. I think there should be more of that, and I hope these pieces will get played more — there’s some really great music in there.”

The septet planned to make studio recordings of all eleven pieces in early 2017. Live recordings from the tour are available at their website and at the Seattle Times.

Confidence in My Instrument

by Ellen Breakfield-Glick

When I learned about our tour of seven national parks, I knew that I needed equipment that would help me sound my best in diverse and extreme conditions. This is not an easy ask when one concert is underground in Mammoth Cave and one is 7,000 feet above sea level at Mount Rainer! The Alpha was the perfect clarinet for our trip: it was durable, reliable, and most importantly, it helped me sound my best in every situation. One of the best parts about our tour was interacting with our audience members. At each performance I received several questions about my instrument, allowing me to speak personally about my experiences playing in the parks. We performed in some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and having confidence in my instrument meant that I was able to enjoy every moment.

Ellen Breakfield-Glick holds positions with CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra and the award-winning Michigan Philharmonic Orchestra, and she frequently performs with the Louisville Orchestra. An avid chamber musician, she has performed for a wide range of audiences throughout the United States, at venues such as Lincoln Center and Kilbourn Hall. She has participated in music festivals throughout the United States and Canada. As an educator, Ellen has served on the faculty of Cleveland State University since 2013 and maintains a successful private studio. In 2016, she was awarded the Golden Apple Teaching award, given to faculty members for excellence in teaching and outstanding contributions to the CSU community. Ellen received a Bachelor of Music Degree from the Eastman School of Music and Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts Degrees from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Her teachers have included Daniel Gilbert, Kenneth Grant, Robert DiLutis, Michael Webster and Harry Hill.