Peabody chamber music marathon was the result of a pianist's love

April 08, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Seth Knopp abandoned a budding career as a solo pianist to become a chamber music player because he fell in love with a woman. He decided to organize today's free Chamber Music Marathon in Friedberg Hall at the Peabody Conservatory of Music because he's in love with chamber music.

"Chamber music is one of the most important experiences in a musician's life," says Knopp, the pianist of the Peabody Trio. "It deepens us as musicians and as people -- not least because we share it not only with each other but also with audiences."

In Friedberg today, there'll be -- to paraphrase Elvis Presley -- a whole lotta sharin' goin' on. To call this event a marathon is almost an understatement. It begins at 11 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. and will be interrupted by only three intermissions. Twenty-nine groups, composed of 84 student musicians, will perform 30 masterpieces from Bach to Bernstein. The whole gamut of the school -- its brass, winds, voice, strings, percussion and piano departments -- will be represented.

"We [Peabody's Chamber Music faculty] felt we needed to do something to build a community for chamber music," Knopp says, in explaining how so massive an undertaking came about.

As a trial run, the chamber music marathon took place last year, just for Peabody students and faculty, in two halls simultaneously. The response was so enthusiastic that Peabody decided to repeat it, this time with the public invited. The only difference will be that all the performances will take place in a single hall.

"Last year there were lots of complaints because the two-hall arrangement made it impossible for everybody to hear everything," Knopp says. "This year, almost everyone at Peabody wanted to participate. We signed people up on a first-come, first-served basis. We have a very long waiting list."

The Peabody Trio -- in which Knopp serves as pianist, his wife, Violaine Melancon, as violinist and Tom Kraines as cellist -- is usually considered one of the finest ensembles of its kind, the pretender to the throne now occupied by the Beaux Arts Trio. In 1987 the trio -- the cellist was then Bonnie Thron -- was invited to join the Peabody faculty and offered a residence like the one the Cleveland Quartet occupies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and the Juilliard String Quartet enjoys at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

Less than two years later, the trio won the Naumburg Prize, the most prestigious seal of approval a chamber music ensemble can win in the United States. Things could not be going more swimmingly than they are. The trio regularly tours in North America, Japan and Europe.

But chamber music was not the career that Knopp, 35, originally envisaged. As a 17-year-old prodigy, he was shipped off from his home in Madison, where his parents taught at the University of Wisconsin, to Boston's New England Conservatory so that the youngster could study with the great pedagogue Leonard Shure, the legendary Artur Schnabel's chief assistant in pre-Nazi Berlin.

After finishing his studies with Shure, Knopp headed off for Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia, for two years so that he could acquire a B.A. at one of the nation's finest liberal arts colleges and to commute to Baltimore to study with Peabody's Leon Fleisher.

The summer after his graduation from Swarthmore, Knopp decided to move to downtown Philadelphia, and he asked some friends at the Curtis Institute for leads on apartments. They suggested one that was about to be vacated by Violaine Melancon, a 20-year-old violinist from Quebec City who was leaving Curtis for further study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He met Melancon when he went to look at the apartment.

"We started to play sonatas together," Knopp says.

The following October, Melancon invited him to celebrate his birthday with her in San Francisco.

"I never came back," Knopp says. "Chamber music sort of took over."

The pianist and violinist married and shortly afterward they became a trio -- a non-musical one -- 18 months ago when their son, Pascal, was born.

But it was not simply the desire to make music together that made them decide to abandon solo careers.

Knopp says performing chamber music was "palpably exciting to me in ways that solo performances weren't."

"It's amazing that two people who are different can breathe together, phrase together and read each other's thoughts," he adds. "Chamber music is a tribute to what musicians are capable of -- simply as people."

MUSIC MARATHON

What: Chamber Music Marathon

Where: Peabody Conservatory of Music, Friedberg Hall, 1 East Mount Vernon Place

When: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. today

Admission: Free

Call: (410) 659-8124

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