MANKATO — Those in town primarily know Kenneth Freed as conductor of the Mankato Symphony Orchestra.
Now in his fifth season at the helm, he rarely has the opportunity to step away from the podium and play. But that’s exactly what he’ll do for the final concert of MSO’s 2-year-old chamber series on Sunday.
“For me, it’s just a joy to sit down and play music with my colleagues,” Freed said. “At the end of the day, it’s a welcome change.”
Freed is an accomplished musician who began playing second violin in the Manhattan String Quartet in 1993, touring worldwide. He also played as a substitute in the New York Philharmonic before winning a viola chair with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1998. He continues to serve as a violist (and assistant conductor) of the Minnesota Orchestra.
But with chamber music -- which includes one instrument for each part and no conductor -- the process is somewhat more democratic. Created with the intent of providing music in small, informal settings, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once described chamber music as “four rational people conversing.”
Freed said he and fellow chamber musicians -- Lydia Miller, Valerie Little, Sharon Mautner-Rodgers and Huldah Niles -- approach their performances with that sentiment in mind.
“During rehearsals, we plot (the concert) out and say, ‘Let’s go for it there, let’s back off it here,’” he said. “We work on the phrasing and the shaping of the music. It should be like a great meal -- it can’t all be intense.”
To follow the meal metaphor, MSO’s chamber concert series complements the main musical course with a more intimate setting than that typically offered during full symphony concerts. In fact, that’s precisely why MSO’s Lydia Miller started the chamber concert series.
About three years ago, the violinist made a speech to an MSO audience about the importance of donations in sustaining MSO’s mission. After the concert, a donor told her that he attended almost every concert but had never heard her voice.
That got Miller thinking:
“I wanted to draw a more direct connection between audience and performer as well as open this whole wealth of music.”
To that end, the chamber concerts include short, conversational interludes between songs where musicians describe the pieces they are playing and their personal connections to them. The concerts are also held in the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel, a soaring, resonant space that Freed said is imbued with “something magical and beautiful.”
Two years ago, Miller said she was worried about the public’s reception to the chamber concerts -- “Backstage, before the first concert, I was more nervous than any time in my life,” she said -- but has found that audiences seem as eager to enjoy a less formal setting as the musicians.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it’s been,” Miller said. “The concerts have far exceeded my expectations.”
The concert includes Maurice Ravel’s popular string quartet as well as “Mishima,” a piece composed by the prolific and highly acclaimed contemporary composer Philip Glass as a musical score for the eponymous Japanese film. The musicians will also perform Mozart’s Viola Quintet, the slower movement of which Freed said is “heaven sent. Out of this world.”
MSO’s 2012-13 chamber concert series begins in October.