Talking Classical Music with Sandra Nikolajevs

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Sandra Nikolajevs of Chamber Music Charleston

Note: this interview first appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Charleston Mercury.

SANDRA NIKOLAJEVS is President and Artistic Director of Chamber Music Charleston which hosts its Ovation Series at The Dock Street Theatre and house concerts throughout the Charleston area. Sandra is also Principal Bassoonist of the Savannah Philharmonic, a position she previously held with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the South Carolina Philharmonic, and the Augusta Symphony. We recently sat down to talk about chamber music in Charleston and the state of classical music in general.

Some people would argue that classical music has become unnecessary and obsolete; that it’s a stuffy, inaccessible luxury for the elite. How would you explain to them why it’s important, beneficial, even vital?

It’s such an interesting topic to explore, especially because things have changed so much, particularly in the case of chamber music which began as family and friends playing together informally in their homes. And, yes, they were the elite. They had time for it and being an amateur musician was often part and parcel of an upper-class education. At some point, professionals were brought in to perform and write commissioned pieces. The attention given to each instrument started to grow. Then Haydn raised chamber music to a whole new level of sophistication.

And a lot has obviously changed since then in terms of audience appreciation.

What has changed most, I think, is people’s expectations of being engaged and entertained, not just by the music, but by what happens before and after. You see this with pop and rock concerts, and even athletic events. There is so much entertainment in addition to the main event that the event itself is not necessarily the entertainment anymore. There’s something with our society, with social media and the internet, and with accessibility to everything. People are less moved by art. There’s so much coming at us all the time, so you have try harder to get people’s attention. In our case as classical chamber musicians, we hope the music will stand on its own, but the reality is that you have to work very hard to make people feel fully entertained at every moment.

It seems like a fine line. Where do you stop compromising for the music’s sake?

I have to remind myself that we want our product to be the best it can be because there’s also a trend in the classical world of assuming that an audience doesn’t really know if the music is good or bad; that mediocrity will suffice. So I’m hard on my musicians. I want to keep their expectations and our audience’s expectations high because I feel it’s important not to dumb down the music.

Do you go see other performances? Music or the other arts?

Between our Ovation Series at the Dock Street Theatre and our weekly house concerts, I don’t do as much as I’d like to. But I like the theatre. I like live performances and theatre especially because you don’t know what’s going to happen with that human on the stage making art. It’s very much like performing music. You’re there on the edge. It’s very exciting. I find, too, that it needs to be the right venue for the right piece of music.

Which explains the appeal of your house concerts, yes?

That’s certainly part of it, and we’re lucky to be able to perform in so many beautiful houses. It’s ideal for chamber music and our audiences know they’ll be experiencing that intimate environment. It’s also why we like doing our Ovation Series at the Dock Street. There was a time, though, when we experimented with doing all the bells and whistles to try to draw large audiences and get them to come back again. But we found that what works best is a streamlined program of the things we do well and really enjoy doing.

There is definitely a personal element about your concerts. Not just you as MC, but the whole troupe. It feels warm, close-knit. And that carries over to the music.

People like people, which is sometimes easy to forget with classical music. So I try to offer at least one nugget of information about the composer or the piece that will inform an audience about what they’re listening to. I do my best to put the audience at ease rather than restrict them by saying things like, “You’re going to hear something wonderful, so be quiet,” or “Don’t clap between movements.” If I feel at ease, they feel at ease, and giving them a little something to think about while listening helps.

We’re back to making classical music accessible and meaningful. Making it important to the listener.

I feel it’s important in many ways that are hard to explain. One thing we can see now is how the music allows us to escape from the present world in terms of what we’re bombarded with: the news, current events, and all our concerns. Great music brings you to a very pure, elemental place that you might not understand, but it reaches you emotionally. It’s very hard to put into words what happens when you’re in the presence of great art, whether it’s seeing a painting, or being in the theater, or reading a book, or listening to music of any genre. There’s something that speaks, and I think it speaks to the human spirit. It’s something you can’t always put your finger on but it’s a connection that brings you to a different state of time. It’s so ephemeral. It’s also shows why it’s important to disconnect from our electronics, from the news and politics; to put all that aside for a moment and let the psyche have something clear and new. The art can then touch you—for example, when you witness a cathartic moment in a play, and you’re crying because of something that happened. Moments like that are important because they’re created by the art, and its rejuvenating. It’s also very personal and unique for each person.

Is that experience the same for you as a performer as it is when you’re in the audience?

It also happens when I’m performing, which for me now is most often in an orchestra setting. I’m very lucky that I get to play regularly with the Savannah Orchestra which has one of the most charismatic conductors I’ve ever worked with: Peter Shannon. He opens my mind with his little bits of information about a piece and how to interpret it, and he is so supportive that there are moments in rehearsals and performances when I feel, “This is so incredible. I am so lucky to be a part of this.” It’s a little different, though, when I host our chamber concerts. I’m busy attending to everything, so I’m not as able to be in the moment for the music. But what brings me so much pleasure is when audience members come up after a concert and say things like, “This made such a difference for me,” and “Thank you for doing this.” It makes me realize that we’re actually touching people’s lives and that’s amazing.

Learn more about Chamber Music Charleston and their concerts at


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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
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