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Penn Chamber: A Social Refuge through Music

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Penn Chamber: A Social Refuge through Music

By Davis Butner.

“Chamber music serves as a refuge, of sorts, to many instrumental students at Penn,” explains David Yang, director of Chamber Music at Penn. “My goal is to set up groups of students who end up spending most, if not all, of their undergraduate years together.  The group takes on its own mini-culture of sorts, just like a professional rock band, offering participants an intense communal experience that brings the best out of their playing.”

As a participant in the Penn Chamber program for the last four years, I can attest to the director’s mission. Not only has the society helped me connect with talented musicians across all avenues within Penn, but also in the greater city of Philadelphia. Not only have I honed my playing and my ability to coordinate with various ensembles, but I also picked up a new instrument along the way. Not only has Penn Chamber Society opened doors for performance opportunities while at Penn, but it also increased my musical prospects after graduation. 

While my attempts to summarize such a transformative experience may as well boil down to a series of blunt statements, I believe the best way to truly communicate the essence of this organization would be in walking through a typical day of rehearsal.

Cases are opened and bows rosined, chairs slide across wooden floors, their legs, squeaking to life, echo within Fisher Bennett’s Rose auditorium. Mr. Yang, who insists on going by David, sits calmly in a nearby chair to greet us as we take our places next to the grand piano. After taking an A to tune, we adjust ourselves and our instruments for a run through our piece, an unusual trio by the name Märchenerzählungen, or “fairytales,” by German composer Robert Schumann.

  • 2nd movement of Schumann's Märchenerzählungen Op. 132 for viola, clarinet, and piano.

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  • 3rd movement of Schumann's Märchenerzählungen Op. 132 for viola, clarinet, and piano.

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I’m not holding my primary instrument. As a violinist, and one of many enrolled in Penn’s Chamber ensembles, I have been offered the unique opportunity to fill in for a violist, a terrifying prospect given that the instrument is read in an entirely different clef. Nevertheless, through David’s encouragement and the support of the group, I have faced the challenge and I adapt surprisingly quickly to the qualities of the instrument, drawing on the energy of the ensemble. If not for such a supportive environment, which is so strongly maintained within each rehearsal, I would not have developed the confidence necessary to tackle such an exposing challenge at the expense of the group.

Within seconds of beginning the piece, David is on his feet, circling us and calling out dynamics, pointing out elements of phrasing, practically dancing to the tune to help us move beyond the notes on the page. We must feel both the music and each other, understand each other’s sound, and moreover, anticipate each other’s pacing as we charge through movement after movement. The hour of rehearsal seems to fly by as we take turns pairing up on passages, receiving feedback, and reinterpreting various elements of the piece. Rehearsal, after all, is more than just a chance to go through the motions. We are challenged on an intellectual, and even a philosophical level, questioning not only our relationship to the music and each other, but to the qualities we can uniquely bring out of our instruments. Our ultimate goal in this musical refuge is to find that part of each of us from with such emotion must speak, familiarize ourselves with it, and translate it into other aspects of our lives. When rehearsal is over, dictated not by the clock, but by the moment we reach a decent stopping point in the music, my spirits are refreshed and I am ready to tackle the remainder of the day.


Davis Butner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in Music and Architecture, with a minor in Architectural History. He is the founder of Penn Encore Society and Encore Classics on, Penn's premier classical music society and radio program. Davis's senior violin recital will take place on Saturday, April 5, at 7:00pm at Rodin College House's Rooftop Lounge. The ensemble will feature Younghoon Koh, cello, and James Kwak, piano. 


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Edited by Naomi Shavin.