David Vance on the Chamber Orchestra

Steel City Strings pianist and program annotator, David Vance joins the dots on Chamber Music and the role of the Chamber Orchestra. You can view the video below or read the transcript.

“The keyword here is “chamber,” meaning a room. Not any old room, of course, but rather a room in which one might entertain guests.

It was here, from about the 17th century onwards, in the salons of the nobility or wealthy middle-classes, that small groups of musicians, let’s call them orchestras, would be employed to provide the entertainment, perhaps as a pleasing background to accompany dining, or dancing, or simply socializing. (Do you remember that?) Or else to premiere new works written by the household’s favoured composers.

This is the exact historical moment the word “chamber” enters musical parlance, principally through the French and Italian composers who are writing music intended for performance in such spaces. Corelli, for example, composes dance suites which he describes as “sonata da camera.”


It’s a surprise to learn that the term “chamber orchestra” is relatively modern. It appears around the 1920s, an era which coincides with the beginnings of serious study in the music of the period we call the Baroque. The ensembles required by Bach, Händel, Vivaldi, were essentially, if not by name, what we now would describe as chamber orchestras. So too were the orchestras of Haydn and Mozart, of Schubert and Schumann, extending this tradition well into the 19th century.

A chamber orchestra is, by nature, small. Size does matter.

In contrast to its sprawling counterpart, the symphony orchestra, the chamber orchestra offers a more intimate, direct, and, indeed, frequently more intense musical experience, one designed for smaller venues in which it is easy to hear every detail with transparent clarity, to feel connected to the inner life of the music.

At the nucleus of the chamber orchestra lies a string band: violins, firsts and seconds, violas and cellos, and at least one double bass. A chamber orchestra ideally has a core of about a dozen players, though this might easily swell to 25 or more to create denser textures through the division of parts.

Many composers since the Baroque have found in the chamber orchestra a rich source of expressive potential. We have only to listen to any of Mendelssohn’s string symphonies or the Dvorak and Tchaikovsky serenades to appreciate the range of tonal colours that are available to the sensitive composer. Works like Grieg’s “Holberg Suite”, Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” and Bartok’s “Divertimento for Strings” expand these horizons.

And amongst our living Australian composers, the chamber orchestra continues to provide a vehicle for the exploration of new sounds and string techniques. From Corelli to Kats-Chernin, the chamber orchestra remains a greatly valued and, indeed, core element in our musical universe.”

Our 2020 Digital Season features a wide variety of Chamber Music, combining works for whole string ensemble, quartets, trio and solo works.

You can check out all the information about our digital season below including purchasing a digital subscription and viewing the full program of works.

👉🏻 2020 Digital Season | Oct // Nov // Dec

🎥  Concert Video by Tony Williams from Four Donkey Films.



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The members of Steel City Strings are outstanding examples of hard work, enterprise, enthusiasm and dedication. They reach for the stars and beyond. More power to these wonderful people.

Richard Gill AO

In Debussy's Sacred and Profane Dances of 1904 the orchestra was joined by harpist Paulina Smirnov whose scintillating playing created a wonderful and subtly-nuanced centrepiece for the concert.


A fascinating program of works from various musical periods... The orchestra played with a strong sense of ensemble, and brought an infectious verve to the Mozart.



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