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Walking into the Renwick Gallery in mid-January is like entering a sauna. You expect to see chubby men in towels lolling about rather than well-dressed Washingtonians taking in some fine crafts.

Last weekend’s Smithsonian Chamber Players recital, “Party of Four,” in the gallery’s Grand Salon featured the works of Beethoven, Schubert, Barber, and Brahms, but the hothouse conditions felt entirely inappropriate to a concert featuring Stradivarius instruments from the Smithsonian’s collection.

The concert was prefaced with a lecture by the group’s artistic director, Kenneth Slowik. His delivery of factoids was swift and unrelenting, and my head began to swim in the warm currents of air. Gradually my notes began to look the way the “Rach 3” did to David Helfgott.

I became so relaxed in the heat that my mind began to wander, as my eyes skimmed the numerous paintings hanging on the salon’s yellow-trimmed mauve walls. (One elderly gent found the conditions so relaxing he promptly fell asleep on one of the the room’s circular couches.) I know I can blame my drifting on the temperature rather than Slowik’s delivery, because his liner and performing notes are captivating.

“Sometimes the information does fly fast and furious [at the preconcert talks],” Slowik admits. “But I wanted to mention [the technical things] because sometimes we don’t think about the craft that goes into these pieces. But I would think that if an audience comes on a regular basis they will start piecing these things together.”

Local audiences have been privy to Slowik’s pedagogy, under the auspices of the SCP, since he became the group’s artistic director in 1985. With a background in both music history and performance, Slowik is ideally suited to weaving together the Smithsonian’s disparate resources. Along with the Players’ executive director, Patrick Rucker, Slowik gave a history lesson on how music was shaped by politics in the Weimar Republic. “It may be the historian in me that I find this fascination with [cultural context],” says Slowik.

Once the trio, quartet, and quintets began, however, my mind’s cumuli cleared and the sweat on my brow dissipated into the humid air. Beethoven’s 1798 Trio in G major, Op. 9, No. 1 was heavenly; then the threesome was joined by a second violinist for the poetic chromaticism of Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703. Both pieces sharply contrasted with Samuel Barber’s 1931 polyphonic piece for strings and baritone, “Dover Beach,” based on the poem by Matthew Arnold, and the evening ended by referring back to where it began with Brahms’ Beethoven-inspired Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1.

The temperature was just fine.

The Smithsonian Chamber Players’ new disc, Transfiguration, features equally wide-ranging—and accessible—selections, including Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, Beethoven’s Quartetto serioso, in F minor, Op. 95, and Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht. There are also two different original recordings of the Mahler piece by Willem Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra (1926) and Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1938) (which also does Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”). In addition, there is a fascinating reading of Schönberg’s program notes to his piece by his former secretary and assistant, Richard Hoffmann. Slowik has programmed Transfiguration, his fiftysomethingth recording, as a comparative learning experience.

For Slowik, history is not something to be placed under a glass. “We have this collection of instruments here that numbers 5,000 objects…and over 3,000 instruments that are in the anthropological museum,” he explains.

“Some people in the conservation field have argued that what we do with these instruments by playing them is essentially wrong,” says Slowik. “But I often get asked by people at the gallery that if the instruments aren’t played, don’t they deteriorate in some way? An instrument might seem creaky when you first start playing it, so you have to coax it back into playing [condition]. But if you haven’t seen an old friend for some time you might need [a little while] to see how things are going,” he laughs.

Slowik describes the playing of a Stradivarius as “parallel to an exhibit,” one the demurely enthusiastic Slowik would surely attend, even if he weren’t its curator. “I’m always astonished when I think of the violin-family instruments. This is an invention of the Renaissance, essentially, that is still in use today, in all respects, in almost an unaltered condition. You think about some other inventions—Leonardo sketched a helicopter, but how different is that from a modern Sikorsky? The violin has had a few little changes, the way the neck is [angled back a bit], but the box is still primarily the same.”

An equally important violin adaptation took place in the early decades of this century, “when the old strings, gut—’cat gut’ in popular vernacular, but it’s actually sheep intestine—were replaced by steel strings,” Slowik says. “And because those steel strings have a different kind of general sound, a lot of other things had to go along with the way the instruments were played. So, for instance, vibrato began to be used in a much more widespread application, because that sound needed that extra warmth. So, gradually the way we’ve listened to those pieces has evolved. So what we attempt to do is to dig into [a piece’s] historical richness and find out what is there to bring out that kind of playing style.”

Both Transfiguration, and its predecessor, Metamorphosis, feature period instruments from the Smithsonian as well as extensive research into period musical mores. “I’m a strong believer that a composer wrote with something in mind. So when we have a chance to look at the [original] instrument and the performing styles that go along with this music, I hope it makes it more accessible to people,” Slowik explains.

“We try in all practice sessions to read what everyone was saying at the time, we look at old instruments, we look at paintings sometimes to see how the instruments are grouped and arranged. Some people even go so far as to look at paintings of people singing to see how they are holding their throats and chins, and [how they are] opening their mouths to see what the sounds were like. Some of these can get pretty far-fetched, but when you have a recording, some of this can be very telling.”

With his curly hair and glasses, slightly nasal voice, and dignified manner of speaking, Slowik fits the part of classical musician. When Slowik plays his violoncello, his mouth is small and taut and his brow is scrunched up from his wide-open eyes. His enthusiasm for his job and the music is immediately apparent.

“I think the best music—whether it’s jazz or pop or classical, medieval chant—there is something that speaks directly to us. Music is not only the universal language, it cuts across time and geography. You can talk almost mystically about it,” Slowik says evenly.

“I don’t mean to go off the deep end in that way, but when I play a piece, say, by Beethoven, it’s a piece that’s 150 years old or more. Why has this name of Beethoven been kept alive all these years? There was some creative spark there that was recognized in his time, and people have kindled it, like people carrying the Olympic torch across the country. All through time, [Beethoven’s work] has come down to us, and each generation gets to approach it on its own terms. One of the great benefits of democracy is that everybody gets a chance to taste what only the king had a chance to taste before.”

Slowik’s a populist working for the court. In addition to leading the Chamber Players, Slowik serves on the faculty at the University of Maryland and is the artistic director of the Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin College. “People often want to erect these big barriers between classical music and popular music, and I think feeling sometimes, not quite rightly, that classical music is not quite accessible, or they may not like it. But what we have [in these composers] are people having the same emotions we have now and trying to express them,” he says.

“Classical music doesn’t have [pop’s metronomic rhythm], but it has great rhythm on the micro level, and it has longer spanning rhythms, different tensions, and so on. So I think that if people can just settle back and listen to those rhythms…I think that’s what people should try to bring when they come to the concerts, is just being really alert. It’s nothing beyond anyone; it’s about getting in tune.” CP

The Smithsonian Chambers Players’ next performance, in honor of Schubert’s 200th birthday, will be Feb. 1 and 2 at the Museum of American History’s Hall of Musical Instruments. Call (202) 357-3030 for reservations or Patrick Rucker at (202) 633-9161 for more information.