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Seeing music in colour

20 Oct 23 | Q&A

In the run up to their concert on 28th October, we caught up with Elena Urioste to learn more about the Kaleidosope Chamber Collective and the unique way in which she experiences music.

Why did you and Tom start Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective? 

Our initial impulse to create a chamber collective was derived simply from the desire to play — or continue playing, I should say — music that we love with people that we love.

Tom and I had both reached a point in our respective careers where we felt it would be rewarding to have more agency over our musical lives — to build something from the ground up with our own values at the center, rather than always being at the mercy of others in the industry inviting us along for the ride.

Speaking personally, I suppose Kaleidoscope’s conception in 2017 fell at a time when I was on the brink of leaving my home in New York City — for a number of reasons, but in part because of the sadness I felt at not having felt included in many of the preexisting chamber music societies/circles/“clubs” in the States (certainly not for lack of trying!). I had a fulfilling, busy career as a soloist and my gratitude for those concert opportunities remains endless, but feeling a bit like an outsider on the chamber music scene — which most freelance musicians will tell you is the place they feel most fulfilled — heightened my desire to create something of my own. I wanted to be someone who could potentially provide opportunities for others, and enable the musicians that I loved and believed in to shine as brightly as possible, each in their own unique ways.

One of the characteristics of our Kaleidoscope roster that we’re most proud of is that the people whose music-making and onstage charisma we’re most drawn to also happen to encompass an incredibly wide range of backgrounds, nationalities, ages, and stories; and without exception whenever we all come together to make music, something incredibly special happens. 

Can you tell us more about chamber music?

Chamber music is, quite literally, music to be played in one’s chambers — music on a smaller scale, with only a few musicians in a room rather than a massive symphonic orchestra in a grand hall. It’s the music of friends: intimate, pared down, stripped of excess bulk and distilled to a pure, powerful essence. Of course there is obvious appeal in a theatrical opera production or a massive Mahler symphony, but audience members often say that chamber music makes them feel most a part of the action — you’re sitting up close, you can see facial expressions and tiny body cues and really feel as though you’re helping to bring something alive. Which is true: the intimacy and closeness of a chamber music performance affects the performers as much as the audience — everyone is breathing together, having a shared experience, and that ubiquitous fourth wall really does seem to disappear.

Why do you think people should come to The Colour of Music in the Sheldonian? 

The Sheldonian is such a beautiful venue, and we’ve devised our colour-themed programme specially for the occasion. Kaleidoscope loves sharing music which is deservedly beloved (our programme concludes with Mendelssohn’s Octet, one of the most joyful pieces ever written) alongside music which doesn’t get heard as often as it deserves to be. We collectively fell in love with Amy Beach’s gloriously romantic Piano Quintet a few years back, recorded it during the pandemic (BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library recently selected our recording as the best available), and have passionately championed it ever since. We’re also playing music by two amazing living American composers – Jennifer Higdon, whose Pale Yellow is a beautiful meditation for piano trio, and Jessie Montgomery (a dear friend of mine) whose Starburst opens the concert in a blaze of brilliance.

Why is The Colour of Music important to you?

I’m synaesthetic, so I see all music in colour. More specifically, I see all letters in color, both written and spoken — A is cranberry red, B is blue, C is mustard yellow, etc., though the hue of each letter is informed somewhat by its neighbors, either within words or within musical melodies/harmonies. I also have perfect pitch, so for example, a D Major triad (a chord made up of the notes D, F#, and A) would paint a wash of blue, earthy purple, and pinkish red in my mind. Amy Beach shared a version of this condition, and associated each musical key with a different colour.

Something else we’re passionate about is supporting brilliant musicians of the next generation, so we’re very excited to be joined by students from Oxford University and Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra in this special concert.

What can people expect at the concert? 

First and foremost, vibrant music-making, from five of Kaleidoscope’s core instrumentalists – Tom and I will be joined by three dear friends and colleagues, violinist Savitri Grier (who was an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford), viola player Edgar Francis, and cellist Tony Rymer.

We’ll also be chatting to the audience about the music we’re playing, why we chose and why we love it, and about the fascinating neurological condition of synaesthesia. We want everyone to have a wonderful, transportive time, whether it’s their first concert or their thousandth!

What do you hope people take away from The Colour of Music? 

Joy! Enthusiasm! Escape! Maybe an interest in the fascinating world of synaesthesia and how it informs music! We hope that young people, people who love clapping between movements and tapping their feet to the beat, people who have never been to a classical concert before, people who have been to countless classical concerts before but want to hear something they maybe haven’t heard before and smile because our energy is contagious — we hope they all come to share music with us!

20 Oct 23

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