• Tanya Tomkins
  • February 22, 2015

Why I Decided to Start a Chamber Music Festival

Valley of the Moon Music Festival logoThe short answer is that I have been playing music for what feels like forever and one day I woke up with a distinct sense that something needed to change. It’s not that I don’t still love performing, because I do, but I realized that what excited me now was teaching young musicians and hopefully passing along to them some of what I have struggled over for years. It sounds like a cliché to say that I “learn as much from my students as they do from me” but it’s true. “Teaching” chamber music is less like teaching and more like coaching. I compare it to workshopping a piece of writing where the group makes suggestions based on their gut feeling that a passage feels false or that a character isn’t working.

Trio d'AmsterdamTransitions are one of the hardest and most important things in chamber music. Transitions connect one idea to another and, depending on how they are approached, they can greatly alter the architecture of a piece. In performing music we have many choices. The choices we make either ring true or they don’t. How do you usher in a new “character”? With timing, color, dynamic, all of the above — or just by playing in a neutral way? In a good chamber music group, everyone decides.

When I was young, playing in a string quartet in Holland, we would argue relentlessly over musical decisions. In the end, it didn’t matter who won, but it made a great difference to the result that we had argued. We had forced each other to see things in a new light, which changed and deepened the way we played the section in question.

If an entire Beethoven string quartet is played by great instrumentalists who don’t struggle with decisions, then the result may be brilliant but it will not be moving.beethoven_piano

As in music, transitions are key in life. Now, as a coach, I am discovering the satisfaction of helping students explore the meaning of a piece and taking the time to try out different ideas. I don’t have all the answers but I have had a lot more time to make mistakes than they have. I have had more time to experiment. I have had thousands of discussions about tempos and shaping phrases. I realized that my struggles have equipped me to help other musicians explore their process.

Coaching chamber music is my new great pleasure in life. For this reason, Eric Zivian and I have decided to expand the apprentice program that is already part of our house concert series (Benvenue House Concerts) and found the Valley of the Moon Music Festival, complete with its own apprentice program.


For the last ten years Eric and I have immersed ourselves in the playing and recording of Romantic and Classical music on original instruments. Most early music festivals in the US focus on Baroque music. We want to highlight the late 18th and 19th centuries – from Beethoven to Brahms – because we think these great compositions are best enjoyed on the instruments for which they were written. Balance issues are taken care of naturally (the fortepiano produces about half the volume of a modern piano) and an intimacy is restored which can be lost when using modern instruments designed for maximum sustained sound. Players can be more expressive on period instruments and more able to reveal the dramatic narratives in this music.

There are of course many places for young musicians to get chamber music coaching, but none currently where they can collaborate exclusively on this exciting repertoire with world-renowned period instrument experts (including Elizabeth Blumenstock, Monica Huggett, Eric Hoeprich and Vera Beths).

The concert hall at Hanna opens onto a patio

The concert hall at Hanna opens onto a patio

Held at the beautiful Hanna School for Boys in Sonoma, California, the Valley of the Moon Music Festival will take place this July 18 –August 2.

We are very excited to combine our two loves — teaching and chamber music — into one amazing summer event! We hope you will come to our concerts and we appreciate any support you can offer this new endeavor. Please visit our website for more information on this inaugural season of concerts.

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