Chamber Music in the City: Questions For Con Vivo Founder Amelia Hollander Ames

Con Vivo, Jersey City’s classical and chamber music collective, is back tonight with a free concert from 6 to 8 pm at Two Boots, 133 Newark Ave. (The concert was moved indoors from its usual location at Mercado Park because of rain.) The performance will feature Dana Lyn on violin and Ben Holmes on trumpet playing originals as well as music by Bach, Berio and Bartok.

chatted with Con Vivo founder Amelia Hollander Ames, a professional violist who lives in Downtown Jersey City with her husband and their son, who turns 2 this month.

JCI: Why did you decide to form Con Vivo in Jersey City?

Amelia Hollander Ames: It started while I was at a chamber music festival in Maine. I had a great time playing with these folks and I wanted to play again, and we went to Van Vorst Park after we got back and did three concerts, in 2004. That was kind of how it started. We called it Music on Blue Hill, that’s where we were in Maine.

The main reason to do it here is because I grew up here and I’d never actually played here until that point. There was no chamber music that I knew of that was happening here. I went to music school in New York growing up, I played in the New York Youth Symphony, everything was on that side of the river and it kind of seemed like it wasn’t happening over here as far as I knew. It just seemed like something we could do and there was a really great response to the concerts in the Van Vorst Park gazebo in 2004.

Then I moved to Israel for three years and was playing over there and when I moved back, I got in touch with the city. We started out having all this help from City Hall for our first season at the gazebo in 2007.

JCI: You have degrees in viola performance from the Eastman School of Music and New England Conservatory. How did you get interested in classical music and the viola?

AHA: It started because i went to preschool in New York and I had a friend who was going to music school in the city and I wanted to do what she did. I started when I was 4 on violin and took lessons there till I graduated high school. I switched to viola my junior year.

JCI: How did you get interested in chamber music?

AHA: I think it’s part of being a violist — there’s not a huge repertoire for us. The most satisfying pieces for viola I think are in chamber music repertoire. I think if you pick the viola, it’s not the obvious route toward being a diva, you’re choosing a middle voice so I think it’s pretty typical of violists to really enjoy chamber music. There’s a viola joke that there’s an ad in a newspaper and a string quartet is seeking a first violinist, second violinist and cellist. But the collaborative nature of it is really fun, I really like to play with my friends. I like solo stuff too, but I just have always preferred chamber music.

JCI: Who are some of your favorite composers?

AHA: I love Bartok, Beethoven, Haydn, Shostakovich and of course Bach. We have to do a Bach concert every year. We could do a whole season of Bach every year for the rest of our lives and not play it all.

JCI: What has the community response been to Con Vivo’s concerts?

AHA: Our audiences are really special. Especially when we feature a guest ensemble, it’s awesome to see people’s reactions when they’ve never been to Jersey City before. You feel like the audience is really listening in a different way. I don’t know if that’s because there aren’t other concert series like this or if it’s just the nature of the people, but I feel like we get really great feedback, in particular when we play outdoors. People kind of accidentally find us — it’s an accidental audience — and we’re kind of returning to that with the series at Mercado Park. We started outdoors and we’ve had a couple of seasons where we’ve been mainly indoors, so to get the opportunity to play outdoors again is really fun. We’re going back to our roots.

JCI: What else do you have planned for the year?

AHA: We’re going to have a fall gala, a winter Bach concert and a spring and a summer concert that will feature really interesting mixed ensembles. So we’ll do four indoor concerts and then have concerts twice a month at Mercado Park this summer. (The next Mercado Park concert is Tuesday, Sept. 4 from 6-8 pm and will feature cellist and vocalist Jody Redhage.)

We’ve been talking about doing sight-reading parties. We’re going to do something like that Sept. 29 at the All About Downtown Festival. We’re going to have a whole lot of chamber street music, chairs and stands set up so if people want to come and sight-read with us, it’s going to be really fun.

We’re also going to be doing a Kickstarter grant soon to try to do our first studio recording. We want to get some polished recordings of music by young composers we’ve been working with. One of whom, John Altieri, did a piece that was our first and only commission so far — it involved Bollywood music and it was for oboe, clarinet, viola, violin and bass and we had bells around our ankles, Indian bells. It was just really fun, it was like dance music. We performed it at Art House two years ago. That’s one of the pieces we want to record.

JCI: What kind of audience is there for chamber music — is it a challenge to get people interested?

AHA: In a way I think because Jersey City doesn’t have a venue for chamber music, we’re always finding unorthodox places to play, and that in itself has meant reaching an audience we wouldn’t reach otherwise, whether it’s at Kanibal Home, the park, Temple Beth-El or St. Paul’s Church. Each place we play has its own type of audience, and it feels like every place we’ve played, we got a good response.

I don’t think that the audience is really homogenous, I think it matters where you take it and if you take it there with real passion and joy and you love what you do, then people are going to get it.

I feel every audience we play for has been really fun. We did one concert at Kanibal where a bunch of my friends with babies came. You’d think, ‘I wouldn’t bring a small child to a chamber music concert,’ but they were totally rapt. It was really really cool to see them listening.

JCI: What are some of the most exciting projects people in our generation are doing with music?

AHA: There’s so much going on I don’t even know where to start. I have a friend in Berlin who’s doing some amazing things with her orchestra called Kaleidoscope. They do tons of theatrical collaborations and collaborations with dance. There’s a lot going on at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. That place was renovated and turned into what it is by a couple of classical musicians. I went to music camp with them when we were in high school. I feel like that’s so indicative of what people are trying to do now — have a space that’s really, really open.

There’s a man named Garth Knox who’s a violist who’s incredible, cutting-edge and is really expanding the techniques for the instrument. He plays a lot in Europe but I try to catch him when he comes to New York.

JCI: What’s changed about your musical life since you became a mom?

AHA: There’s such a baby boom here and so many young families, and I’m much more aware of what their needs are when I schedule a concert. Our regular indoor concerts always have to include accessibility for children now. I’m really aware of having an exit they can quietly leave from if they need to, and an entrance for strollers. That’s because of me and my baby, but also what Jersey City is. Everywhere you look there are strollers, and we want to make it welcoming.

From left to right, Carolyn Jeselsohn, Andrew Roitstein, Irene Wong and Amelia Hollander Ames

File photo by Al Baccili

a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the The Wall Street Journal, and Agence France-Presse. She is also a former editor for Jersey City Independent.