String Harmony with Music of the Spheres Society

October 14, 2009 Updated: September 29, 2015
Society member Hsin-Yun Huang is acclaimed worldwide for her talent. She has collaborated with many distinguished artists, including Yo-Yo Ma and Jaime Laredo. (Courtesy of Stephanie Chase)
Society member Hsin-Yun Huang is acclaimed worldwide for her talent. She has collaborated with many distinguished artists, including Yo-Yo Ma and Jaime Laredo. (Courtesy of Stephanie Chase)

Ancient scholars believed that the movement of celestial bodies produces harmonious music, called musica universalis or “music of the spheres.” This belief is alive and well and living in New York today—re-envisioned by a group of string players.

They call themselves the Music of the Spheres Society, and they will present a concert, “Flying Fingers,” Oct. 16 at the Christ & St. Stephen's Church in New York City.

Founded in 2001 and inspired by the Neo-Platonic academies of 16th and 17th-century Italy, the goal of the society, as stated on its Web site, is to "promote classical music through innovative chamber music concerts and pre-concert lectures which illuminate music’s historical, philosophical, and scientific foundations, in order to give greater context for music to the average audience member."

Stephanie Chase, one of the founders of the Music of the Spheres Society and its artistic director, shares details about the “Flying Fingers” concert. The program includes her own violin quintet renditions of virtuoso pieces by Pablo de Sarasate, Niccolo Paganini, and Manuel de Falla. It will also feature the world premiere of an arrangement of “Sonata in D Minor for Violin and Piano” by Johannes Brahms.

Before the concert there will be a short performance on one of the earliest known string instruments: the angular harp.

What Makes Fingers Fly

Double bassist Kurt Muroki will also perform in the concert onOct. 16. He currently teaches double bass at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and serves on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music. (Courtesy of Stephanie Chase)
Double bassist Kurt Muroki will also perform in the concert onOct. 16. He currently teaches double bass at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and serves on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music. (Courtesy of Stephanie Chase)
Ms. Chase says the name of the concert was carefully chosen.

“’Flying Fingers’ refers to the fact that the program features extremely virtuosic music. It is also the title of a short work my father, Bruce Chase—a music arranger and composer—wrote for me when I was about 7 years old, so I am remembering my father through this title.”

The pieces in the program were also a product of Ms. Chase’s inspiration and years of hard work.

“Several years ago I felt inspired to write an arrangement of “Carmen Fantasy,” which is a work for solo violin arranged from Bizet’s opera music by Pablo de Sarasate. It is a work that I have performed numerous times as violin soloist with orchestra, and I made the arrangement for an operatic concert. It was a big hit, and I orchestrated it for performances by Itzhak Perlman and his Perlman Music Program students to play.”

“Carmen” simply ignited Ms. Chase’s interest in Sarasate’s music and inspired her to continue to explore his works, arranging them into violin pieces.

“Since then I have made other arrangements of music by Sarasate, including the three works on the Oct. 16 program: “Caprice Basque,” “Romanza Andaluza,” and “Ziguenerweisen.”

Stephanie Chase also made an arrangement of Nicolo Paganini’s “24th Caprice for string orchestra. “

“For this arrangement I inserted a motto of my name (C-H-A-S-E) in the manner of Bach, and I call the work ‘A Capricious CHASE.’”

Despite the fact that Brahms’ music is often remarkably symphonic in form, Ms. Chase realized that his melodic and harmonic ideas could be played by five strings players without sacrificing material.

“The Sonata in D Minor for violin and piano by Brahms is a piece I really enjoy playing; recently, I have become aware that it might work beautifully transcribed for strings.”

Creating a Good Musical Arrangement

Music of the Spheres Society in rehearsal for a concert in Dallas in December 2008. The concert was performed on Baroque instruments: (L-R) Stephanie Chase, Todd Crow (harpsichord), Drew Minter (countertenor), and James Wilson (cello). (Courtesy of Stephanie Chase)
Music of the Spheres Society in rehearsal for a concert in Dallas in December 2008. The concert was performed on Baroque instruments: (L-R) Stephanie Chase, Todd Crow (harpsichord), Drew Minter (countertenor), and James Wilson (cello). (Courtesy of Stephanie Chase)
Stephanie Chase shares that arranging music is a very time consuming process, but that it gets easier over time.

“I have no special training in making music arrangements—my father was really excellent and imaginative at it and also had no particular training.”

Nevertheless, it takes remarkable artistry and sense for melody to produce a good rendition.

“In my string arrangements I always try to share the melodic line, even to the extent of depriving myself as first violinist of some nice material. The viola, for example, has a special sonority that is beautiful—like a mezzo soprano voice—and I like to feature it for melodic music that is somewhat lower in pitch.”

Furthermore, one needs to be able to think of all the instruments at the same time, thus making them sound as one.

“My arrangement of Ziguenerweisen spreads all of the solos around in a very democratic way, including the double bass. With the Brahms, however, there are times when I need the lower voices for harmonic and bass motion—the original piano writing is often extremely low—so the solos tend to stay more in the upper strings.”

The Harmony Behind Music of the Spheres

Stephanie Chase is the artistic director and a core part of the Music of the Spheres Society based in New York. (Courtesy of Stephanie Chase)
Stephanie Chase is the artistic director and a core part of the Music of the Spheres Society based in New York. (Courtesy of Stephanie Chase)
In her work, Stephanie Chase tries to demonstrate the connections of music with the physical and spiritual world through history, technology, and science. She believes that music has mathematical proportions which should be followed in order to create a harmonious sound.

“Many scholars feel that Bach’s music incorporates the ‘music of the spheres’ in both its proportions and construction—music is actually very architectural—and Bartok’s music contains the golden section of proportion, which is expressed through the additive series called Fibonacci numbers.”

At the same time she knows that interpersonal harmony in the team of musicians is no easier to achieve and yet crucial for the success of a perrformance.

“If four out of five players share a comparable work ethic but the fifth is out of sorts in terms of concentration or commitment to rehearsing and preparation, then the entire ensemble suffers a diminishment of positive energy—usually not perceptible to the audience—but there, nonetheless. Over the years I have made what I would consider two mistakes in terms of hiring an artist who brought negative issues to a performance and its preparation.”

Stephanie Chase has lived all the bad and good moments of the Society, but cherishes them all as equally precious.

“The hardest moment for the Society was probably our opening concert on Nov. 1, 2001. We were still devastated by the World Trade Center destruction and devoted the concert to music of remembrance. We also donated all of our proceeds to two firehouses that were in our neighborhoods, which had lost all of their men in the disaster.”

“The happiest time is usually when we are actually playing the concerts—I remember them all with enjoyment for the music and time spent with the musicians.”

'The Best Definition of Artistry is that of Discovering and Presenting Truth'

Stephanie Chase remembers the time when she studied with the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux fondly. He was the epitome of a great artist and a model to emulate.

“For me, the best definition of artistry is that of discovering and presenting truth, while recognizing that this is a subjective value. For a musician, it is serving the desires of the composer in the best manner possible.”

In terms of more contemporary music, the accomplished violinist singles out the pop star Pink.

“I have a great respect of her. Much like Janis Joplin, she conveys personal truth in her voice and her songs. Even her more theatrical elements—such as using a trapeze in her performances—reveal an enormous discipline, strength, and the ability to be completely ‘in the moment,’ which is what I strive for. She would not be able to do so if she were addled by drugs or alcohol, so she is— unlike many other of today’s performers—remarkably clearheaded and fit, both mentally and physically.”

Watch Stephanie Chase's performance "Devil's Joke" by Rudolf Friml."

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Due to the pressures and isolation of modern society, Ms. Chase is confident that in order to remain true to herself and to retain her moral values, the best way is to be a classical musician.

“Being a classical musician—in solo and chamber music—is an ideal state of existence. An artist must be comfortable with the process of constant self-examination, of a very critical and objective nature, and then build confidence to the extent of presenting his ideas to the public with complete authority.”

Guided by her strong belief in the power of classical music, Stephanie Chase looks forward to new challenges. In December she will appear in a solo violin recital at Frederick Loewe Theatre in New York that will include Bartok’s “Sonata for solo violin,” composed in 1944—one of the most difficult works ever composed for her instrument.

“My goal is to increase the depth of awareness of classical music and how it is intrinsically an influence on our lives in many contexts—often without our awareness.”

For more information: http://www.musicofthespheres.org.