In music, an “intermezzo” is a short composition between main divisions of an extended musical work. It also can be described as entertainment of light character introduced between the acts of a drama or opera. For 15 years now, the aptly named Intermezzo Chamber Music Series has provided Salt Lake City with a short summer concert series. It’s a way for musicians who typically are busy with the traditional September to May concert season to play chamber music with their friends — for their friends. That circle of friends is constantly growing to include more fans who have a serious love for chamber music, but who also like to have some fun along the way.
In 2001, pianist Vedrana Subotic and violinist David Porter were discussing music over dinner with their active concert-going friends Rachel and Rocco Navarro. Rachel happened to say, “I would love to hear you play more chamber music,” so Porter scheduled a few performances. The four friends became the four founders who then became the board of directors. They came up with a name, Subotic freehanded a logo with an eyeliner brush, and Intermezzo became a concert series almost immediately. Subotic was appointed musical director and Porter became president.
“Mostly, we thought it would be fun to play chamber music with our friends,” says Subotic. “The first year we did three concerts, but it quickly grew to a five-concert season because there were a lot of people who wanted to play chamber music.” One of her responsibilities as musical director is programming. The series has a mission to feature “superb local performers, bold programming interweaving the familiar, the novel and the obscure, with commissioned works by living composers, as well as a surprise here and there.” Each year, she likes to identify a theme for the series, as well as a theme for each concert. Last year, for example, storytelling was the season’s theme with each concert including at least one piece with a narrative or biographical element.
The quality programming is definitely what the audiences come back for, but the surprises Intermezzo throws in also endear the audience to the organization. It isn’t uncommon for the musicians to take the stage to play a romantic sonata, but first launch into a short, unexpected contemporary work, with no warning or explanation. Fortunately, their fans have come to expect a shenanigan or two. Whether it’s having a pizza delivered onstage or organizing a stunt where the horn player falls on his horn and breaks it in the process, Intermezzo isn’t afraid to have fun with their performances. “David inherited a horrible taste of punnery from his father,” Subotic says with a laugh. “And with puns, the worse they are the better they are.” Porter put a concerted effort into naming each concert. In 2006, he playfully based the concert titles on film titles. For example, From Russia with Love featured works by Russian composers, and Portrait of a Lady presented music composed exclusively by women. “One year he did jokes on recession; jokes about downsizing and rightsizing,” Suboitc says. But after 10 years or so the series decided to forgo the titles and just number the concerts. “Believe me, after the ones David had done, no one could do better.”
Intermezzo likes to have fun, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take their season seriously. “We pride ourselves on well-prepared and well-rehearsed music,” says Subotic. “It’s a very high level of ensemble work and the musicians have high expectations of themselves.” Intermezzo isn’t afraid to take risks either. With a loyal audience, Porter and Subotic have been very successful in programming works that are challenging — not only for the musicians, but for the audience as well.
In 2014, they programmed Kassandra by Iannis Xenakis. Tenor Brian Stucki was tasked with playing the role of both Cassandra and the Elders. “The part of Cassandra is performed in falsetto and the elders in chest voice” explains Stucki. “The whole thing is mostly sprechstimme notation.” Sprechstimme is German for “speech voice” and the composer notes the rhythm and pitch in the score so the singer knows when to raise and lower the voice. “It was one of the more frightening performances of my life,” he admits. Subotic joked that they thought of locking the doors once the piece started so the audience couldn’t leave. But people stayed, and they were mesmerized. “I had no idea what the audience would make of it, but the only way to do it was to just completely commit.”
Subotic states the series has grown up over the years, and she believes the audience has grown up with them. In fact, she points to one audience member in particular who did grow up with them. Salt Lake Acting Company’s Alexis Baigue has been attending Intermezzo concerts from the beginning. “I first learned of Intermezzo Chamber Music Series on the sidewalk outside Abravanel Hall. En route to hear Utah Symphony, I was handed a flier announcing Intermezzo’s first season. I think I attended all of that summer’s concerts. Since then, I have missed just a few, and only because I had to work” (he’ll be missing this summer’s performances because he’s in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s performances of Henry V —see our review page 6—and Much Ado About Nothing).
“When he started coming, he didn’t know anything about chamber music” Subotic explains, “but he loved the vibe.” He read the program notes and every year became more and more knowledgeable.” She didn’t realize Intermezzo was such a journey for him until he talked to her about it. She decided she wanted Baigue to be part of their concert season. “We ended up having Alexis and two others from SLAC read poetry.” That idea is what drove the storytelling theme for last year’s season. Subotic chose musical selections that she felt would lend themselves to being paired with a literary selection. Although the audience showed up aware of the musical program, the literary works chosen by the actors were a surprise for the audience. Baigue chose Brahms’ Trio for horn, violin and piano. “The poetry of Walt Whitman exudes the same sensuality, gusto, despair, and ebullience in each of Brahms’ four movements,” says Baigue. “Selecting a poem that perfectly matched the dynamics of each piece required me to read many aloud while listening to each movement; the poetry had to evoke the same sensations and movement as the music, like choreographing dance to a commissioned score.” He repeatedly read Brahms’ Trio while listening to various recordings. “Finally, the four perfect poems became clear: Whitman’s “When I Heard at the Close of the Day”, “One Hour to Madness and Joy”, “Good-Bye My Fancy!”, and “Song at Sunset.” The concept was well-received by the audience and the critics. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Catherine Reese Newton noted that “the intimate Vieve Gore Concert Hall was scarcely big enough to contain [Alexis’] exuberance.”
That performance proved to be a programmatic success, and the audience can expect more creative collaborations in the future. The 2016 season has required an extraordinary commitment on Subotic’s part to make everything happen. David Porter stepped down as president and left the series in her able hands. To celebrate their 15th anniversary, Intermezzo’s theme is to look back at what they’ve accomplished over the years. This season is bookended by memorable performances they’ve programmed before. The other three concerts have some exciting elements audiences can look forward to. Subotic thinks of the music first, and then who she knows might be a good match to perform it. “I’ll just sit down and let loose in my head, what do I want to program, who do I want to bring back, who do I want to include” she explains. “Sometimes I ask the performers I have a relationship with what they’d like to play.” A lot of the performers play for the Utah Symphony, but each year she tries to engage new musicians who move to town or others she hasn’t worked with before. The second concert this season takes place on July 11 and features an unconventional performer. Subotic needed a harpsichord player, but finding one in Salt Lake proved to be a challenge. But then she remembered Jeff Olpin, who earned a Master’s degree in performance from Yale, but became a radiologist. “He’s one of those fascinating people who is good at everything he does,” Subotic says. “His lifelong dream was to build his own harpsichord, so in 2002 he built a replica of a Pascal Taskin. I called and asked him about this and he said, ‘But I’m a doctor.’ I told him it doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect opportunity to include him in the season; it’s a perfect match of music and person and opportunity.”
If Intermezzo were to choose a theme for the past 15 years, “opportunity” would be a suitable choice. Intermezzo was born on opportunity— before the Deer Valley Music Festival, there wasn’t much going on in the classical music scene during the summer, and Intermezzo took the opportunity to fill that void; it continues to provide an opportunity for professional musicians who are used to playing in a large orchestra to stand out a little more, and for audiences to come inside from the usual outdoor music festivals and hear chamber music in an intimate and accessible manner. It also jumps at opportunities: opportunities to pair musicians with the perfect scores, opportunities to introduce different artistic disciplines to one another, and opportunities to have a little fun in the process.