Camden Native Claire Bryant Finds her Dream in New York City

By Jeffrey Day

Claire Bryant had a problem. Like many classically trained musicians, she wondered where her art form fit in 21st-century American life. “You’re trained and trained and trained to master your instrument. You play a concert and walk off the stage. What is a classical musician in this society? What is the value? How does our music tradition relate to the rest of the world? It’s a kind of a mystery we were facing together.”

The Camden-reared, New York-based cellist discovered answers close to home. For several years Bryant and musical colleagues from New York have performed music not just in the concert halls but in classrooms, community centers, and the occasional bar around Camden (as well as New York). Most are part of The Academy, a collaboration among the Juilliard School, Carnegie Hall, and the Weill Music Institute for outstanding young musicians that aims to deliver classical music to non-traditional places and audiences. The Academy, Bryant says, “changed my whole way of thinking about what it means to be a classical musician.”

The box classical musicians find themselves in was blown apart the first time Academy members entered a school to do a residency. “It was the first or second week we’d been doing this, and I was playing (Edward) Elgar’s Cello Concerto,” she recalls. “This girl was sitting right in front of me and she just burst into tears. I didn’t know what to do. She told me ‘I just didn’t know music could make me feel this way.’

“I thought – ‘Wow I’m never going to forget this.’”

When Bryant and her fellow musicians perform at a rural South Carolina school or an inner-city one in New York, for a small audience of solid supporters at the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County, or to a sophisticated city crowd, they toss out many of the conventions that clutter classical music. There’s more talking than you’d find at most concerts. They may point out the visual images a work conjures up or talk about the “temperature” of the sound. At one school, they played an arrangement of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. In the middle of it, one of the musicians jumped up and said “We can’t play that!” which launched a discussion about censorship. They don’t dumb down the programming – there are Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann as well as often-prickly newer pieces. At a recent Camden concert, 280 Measures for Solo Clarinet by Georges Aperghis was met with polite applause. They’re not in a concert hall or classroom to provide distracting entertainment.

“We do just what we’d do if we were playing at Carnegie Hall,” says Bryant, who was invited to The Academy during its first year in 2006.

In April, she and six other New York musicians, along with two sound and video artists from Found Sound Nation, will be back in South Carolina. In Camden, they’ll do a concert and a residency during which they’ll collaborate with 20 high school students to write, perform, and record a CD and stage a ‘street studio” where community members can come and make music, even if they aren’t musicians. They’ll also perform the same concert of music by Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Isang Yun at the University of South Carolina School of Music in Columbia. At USC, they’ll work with music composition students and chamber music groups that want to do an outreach program for veterans. They’ll also play a gig at the Venue, a nightspot in Camden, and are looking for a cool spot in Columbia to do the same. For the concerts, they’ll be joined by Columbia-based pianist Phillip Bush, who has quickly become an admirer of Bryant.

“I was impressed with her playing and what she was dong,” says Bush, who along with a solo concert career played for many years with the Philip Glass and Steve Reich ensembles. “People I knew from New York who had worked with her thought highly of her and this talented younger generation of musicians.”

Bush and Bryant finally met last summer when he invited her to perform and teach at the Chamber Music Conference and Composers Forum of the East in Vermont, where he is artistic director. “We played a fairly difficult piece by Harold Meltzer, and, from the first note, she was great,” he says. “She’s a really positive person to work with.”

Violinist Owen Dalby, who has taken part in nearly all the South Carolina residencies, says of Bryant: “Claire rallies the troops like no one else.”

Born in Greenville, Bryant began studying music at four. Her parents planned to sign her up for violin lessons, but she was tall enough and opted for the cello instead. The family (her father is a pediatrician, her mother a retired summer camp director, and she has a younger sister) moved to Camden when she was eight. Between ages 10 and 20 she studied with USC professor Robert Jesselson, with whom she remains close. (Her musical tastes also extended into rock– the first CD she bought was Pearl Jam’s Ten. She became obsessed with Tom Waites in high school. She rocked out to Mr. Bungle and Fishbone at the Elbow Room.) She also got involved with the Camden Community Theatre at the Fine Arts Center, first cast as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. She kept acting and also played in the band for musicals. She went to plays and concerts and art shows there and has done fund-raisers for the Center.

“I grew up at the Arts Center,” Bryant says. “The reason what we do in Camden has been successful is that I’m from there; I know people. I can walk into a school and talk to a principal.” Although obviously connected to the connected of Camden, Bryant is very down-home, friendly, and completely unpretentious. The visiting musicians stay with Bryant’s parents and family or friends around Camden. Her mother cooks every single meal for them all when they’re in town.

After a brief time at USC, Bryant earned a bachelor’s degree in performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a master’s in performance from Julliard. From 1998 to 2006, she served as assistant to chamber music master Charles Wadsworth at the Spoleto Festival USA, so she learned at the feet of the best. Wadsworth had a concert series that made stops at the Fine Arts Center, as well as in Columbia and Beaufort. However, after he retired a few years ago, the Fine Arts Center signed on for only two Wadsworth concerts annually. Bryant and her friends were enlisted to fill the other concert slots and brought with them the intensive school residencies.

“It was an opportunity to shake things up,” says Kristin Cobb, executive director of the Center. Arts education is a big part of the Center’s mission, and that was a big part of Bryant’s proposal. “It was a much broader scope than what we’d been doing, and it’s also a way to support artists who are from here.”

Bryant’s concerts and residencies, for which she won the 2010 McGraw-Hill Companies Robert Sherman Award for Arts Education and Community Outreach, take up a big part of her life, but she says: “I pretty much run the operation on the subway with my iPhone.” She also works as a professor’s assistant at Juilliard, teaches at a public school twice a week, and performs frequently, mostly in the Northeast. Not long ago, she wouldn’t have imagined having such a varied musical life in the vanguard of redefining the role of a classical musician.

“When I came to Julliard eight years ago, my dream was that I’d be a cellist in a string quartet and have an agent who’d set everything up,” Bryant says. “I was in a quartet that I was serious with that had just broken up, and I felt a little defeated. At The Academy, this whole new world opened up with this little family of musicians. My dreams have changed. I’ve found my dream through this.”


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