Chatter’s artistic director David Felberg brings contemporary music to Santa Fe




Santa Fe New Mexican

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Chatter's artistic director David Felberg brings contemporary music to Santa Fe By Jennifer Levin Before co-founding Chatter in 2002, David Felberg didn’t think much about modern composers. He grew up playing a traditional repertoire — Beethoven, Haydn, Stravinsky, and the rest. After the violinist earned a master’s degree in conducting from the University of New Mexico in 1997, he began exploring career options. Amid auditioning for orchestras and considering additional graduate studies, a third option appeared: joining forces with his friend Eric Walters, who had recently earned his master’s degree in composition. They were eager for experience in their fields and saw a gap in Albuquerque’s music scene. “There was a contemporary ensemble in Santa Fe at the time, but nothing in Albuquerque,” Felberg says. “It was either go get a doctorate or use the money to start a group where we could do that on the ground floor. We combined financially and spiritually.” (Walters died from cancer in 2016.) Twenty years later, Chatter performs concerts in Albuquerque 50 Sundays a year and twice a month at SITE Santa Fe, as well as staging late-night shows and cabaret events. Chatter has established contemporary music as a mainstay in the local scene. Felberg says the secret to the organization’s success is “slow growth over time.” He describes the minimalism of much of contemporary music similarly. For instance, in contemporary Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s “Bulb” for piano trio, “he’s taking the pitches and he’s changing them slowly. Maybe they’re rising; maybe they’re falling. Maybe we’re in a groove and he changes one note or one rhythm, and all of a sudden we’re in a new groove.” Audiences can experience Dennehy’s surprising new grooves on Saturday, Feb. 11, at Chatter (inSITE), part of the Art + Sol Festival. Felberg performs with cellist Felix Fan and pianist Luke Gullickson. The program begins with Beethoven’s piano trio “Ghost,” op. 70, no 1. Felberg comes from a musical family. He’s the son of UNM professor emeritus Leonard Felberg (1931–2018), who served as concert master for the Santa Fe Symphony for 25 years. The internationally respected violinist got his start as a featured soloist with the Seventh Army Symphony and as a member of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Felberg’s mother is pianist Arlette Felberg, founder and artistic director of Albuquerque Chamber Soloists. The pair met as doctoral students at Indiana University and moved to Albuquerque in the late 1960s, when Leonard took a faculty position at UNM. The Felberg home was always filled with musicians, and starting private violin lessons at age 5 seemed natural to David. He later played in the Sandia High School orchestra and with the Albuquerque Youth Symphony. He never really made the choice to be a full-time professional musician — he just didn’t want to stop performing. He couldn’t let go of the thrill of playing for audiences, the pressure to perform well, and the challenge of learning new works. Now he plays about 10 concerts a month on his 1829 J.B. Vuillaume violin, some with Chatter and some as con cert master for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra, where he has taken on his father’s former role. “It was an honor to step into those shoes,” he says. “And also, there is the excitement of making my own mark.” He also conducts for Santa Fe Pro Musica. All these commitments make for a busy life, but he’s continually inspired by the warm support of audiences. “We’ve been really touched by the Santa Fe audiences,” he says. “I love finding new music, finding new things to play. I want to program pieces the audiences will love — trying to play older music in new and interesting ways that will connect with the audience.” Felberg first got into contemporary music by listening to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who came to prominence in the 1970s with meditative, minimalist compositions that some critics consider more New Age than classical. “His music led me down another road, which led me down another road. I came upon so many composers who had different ideas of writing music.” John Luther Adams, John Coolidge Adams, Caroline Shaw, and Raven Chacon — a Navajo composer who won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Music — are among his favorite living composers. As Chatter has grown, so has Felberg’s understanding of and dedication to contemporary music. He’s always finding new composers for Chatter, but his most fertile experimentation came via his alma mater’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, which he conducted for about eight years. “When you have a classical symphony, it’s a pretty standard instrumentation — strings, winds, a little percussion. But contemporary music is like, whoa, all over the place,” Felberg says. “There’d be semesters where I’d have [students playing] clarinet, tuba, violin, and piano, and I’d have to really hunt for interesting pieces to play. I found some incredible solo and chamber music for tuba.” Felberg likes to include old and new music in the same Chatter program to throw each piece into high relief. “You hear Beethoven, and then you hear ‘Bulb’ — you can get where ‘Bulb’ might have commonalities, or not. Or you could play ‘Bulb’ first, and then you’re hearing the Beethoven in a new way.” Audiences often criticize modern classical music because it can utilize dissonance and atonality, although Felberg says this is less true of 21st-century composers than it was in the 1970s and ’80s. Today composers build new musical colors and structures by playing with microtonality, tuning systems, and intonation. Although listeners are often more comfortable with expectations set forth by traditional classical music, Felberg believes it’s his job to open doors to new ways of listening. He says that for hundreds of years, composers wrote music that had somewhat predictable patterns of consonance and dissonance — moments of tension followed by moments of relaxation. Contemporary music sets different musical expectations. It might include harsh or discordant sounds, long periods of silence, or musicians playing to recorded music. But not always. “Bulb” is a very active, almost catchy composition with a clear narrative arc, in which “Dennehy is interested in the overtone series. That’s what harmony is based on. There’s a whole world of things happening inside of a single pitch. When you hear a pitch played by a violin and the same pitch played by a lute, you’ll hear a different tone color,” Felberg says. Modern audiences may feel more secure with Beethoven’s “Ghost,” but it pushed boundaries in the composer’s day. “It’s comfortable to us because of the musical expectations that he sets up. But if you can get into the groove of Dennehy, then I think that could be comfortable as well.” After20yearsconducting,programming, and performing with Chatter, Felberg knows that audiences’ reactions are unpredictable. “We can’t tell you how to listen to it or how to feel, but we can give some guidance on what the composers tried to say. In the end, it’s not really about judging. It’s about experiencing.”