Chamberfest: Mixing it up with violinist and DJ Brendan Speltz

Brendan Speltz

The New York based violinist Brendan Speltz lives a bit of a double musical life.

That will be on display in three different events at Ottawa Chamberfest on Aug. 6 and 7.

The first, on Aug. 6, will feature Speltz, with his mates in the Manhattan Chamber Players, in a performance of Mozart and Dvorak along with the NAC Orchestra’s Carissa Klopoushak.

Then, on Aug. 7, he’ll be included in a massive mash-up of the music of Clara Schumann, whose 200th birthday is this year.

Finally, Speltz will put down his violin and turn on his DJ skills in the closing concert/party of the late night Chamberfringe series.

“It is kind of unusual,” he says about his varied resume.

The Manhattan Chamber Players are a collective of musicians co-ordinated by the violist Luke Fleming, who used to be part of the Atacca Quartet. The ensemble has a roster of about 20 musicians all with busy careers, Speltz said.

“When a concert opportunity comes up Luke chooses the right personnel for it. He likes to mix and match; that’s part of the allure for him. He doesn’t have to play with the same three people all the time.”

The Manhattan team generally plays the chamber music warhorses with occasional forays into newer music by contemporary composers, he said.

That kind of repertoire suits Speltz.

“When I was a kid I dreamed of playing the great chamber works. Since then I have been more interested in championing some new composers and exploring more experimental music and experimental performance experiences.

That, he says, is where the DJing comes in.

“I started doing it as a teenager in Los Angeles. I collected records with my brother who was a big collector.”

With all those albums around, and even though he was seriously studying violin, he thought he might be a DJ too. Eventually that was put to the side because of the demands of school and the violin.

But when he moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music, “I sensed an opportunity to bring young adults closer to classical music and the standard chamber literature. I thought they were an under-used demographic.”

He was doing his master’s and was sitting in a “boring” theory class one day when “I had this idea in my head. I almost got up, left my class and dropped the master’s. Cooler heads prevailed,” he said.

“Most institutions focus on either very young people children through an educational outreach program or their standard programming is geared to older adults with disposable income who can afford to buy a ticket to The Met or the New York Philharmonic.

“I thought people my age, in their 20s and early 30s, would get closer to the music and start to appreciate it if the right performance experience was set up.”

That meant moving out of the concert hall and into other unexpected venues such as nightclubs and art galleries.

“I started to design events in which I would DJ before the concert started. People would be mingling and have a drink or experiencing the venue. Then I would play one piece of standard chamber music instead of three or four. Afterwards the crowd would dance and have a good time.”

Even though he is a fan of hip hop, Speltz doesn’t do much scratching. He assembles a playlist that is heavy on electronic music such as house and deep house, funk and hip hop. It creates quite a contrast with the chamber repertoire.

However, “I’m not interested in fusing the two art forms. When I’m listening to Beethoven string quartet that’s what I want to hear. When I’m listening to deep house I want to hear that.

Speltz believes that exposure to classical music is the key to attracting younger adults.

“It is interesting how people connect to it.”

When he started performing chamber rep in alternative venues was a novel idea.

“I am happy to report that people do it fairly commonly now. Big institutions have gotten into the act of doing this.” In Ottawa, for example, NAC Orchestra members perform in the Mercury Lounge in the WolfGANG Sessions. And the Alpha Art Gallery hosts a concert series.

In Speltz’s case, exposure to classical music was immediate. His parents are musicians. His father is a cellist and his mother is a violinist.

He started playing the violin at six. His brother Brook plays the cello.

“They would drag us to concerts, their concerts or ones they wanted to see and we’d go kicking and screaming. Probably as a rule, kids don’t want to go to classical concerts. That makes sense because you have to sit there for two hours and listen to a form of music that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.

“Both of us started liking classical music when our parents took us to a string quartet camp in Cape Cod. After our first day playing Haydn and Mozart quartets, something just clicked in our brains and we became insatiable in our desire to rehearse and play it.”

Ironically, he said, at this point of his life he probably listens to more non-classical music especially hip hop, funk and jazz.

“I put on Spotify Discovery” and he surfs.

One thing he does hate is hearing people say they don’t like a genre of music.

“The most common thing people say is ‘I hate country music’. I bet they don’t know three per cent of country music. There is some fantastic country music. I hate when people pretend to limit themselves.”

Ironically after doing shows in venues with less than ideal acoustics, he appreciates a really good concert hall more than he ever has in his life.

He’s also embarking on a new journey. He’s now the second violin with the Escher String Quartet, joining his brother.

Chamberfest presents:

Manhattan Chamber Players
Where: Carleton Dominon-Chalmers Centre
When: Aug. 6 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: 

Clara Schumann at 200
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: Aug. 7 at 1 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Violinist/DJ Brendan Speltz
Where: Ottawa Art Gallery
When: Aug. 7 at 10 p.m.
Tickets and information: 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.