The Bay Area is a hotbed of chamber music. Top string quartets are based here: the Kronos, the St. Lawrence and others. There are all manner of series presenting crème de la crème chamber ensembles from around the world, and there is a respected summer festival, Music@Menlo.

But there is no consortium of regional musicians to anchor the scene, pooling their talents to present year-round chamber performances of every variety. Such consortiums have grown into institutions in other cities: the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan is the best example. It is the face of chamber music in a city that overflows with it.

Clarinetist Roman Fukshansky, 34, is a founding member (with pianist Christine McLeavey Payne) of the new Ensemble San Francisco, which he hopes will grow to become the Bay Area's defining chamber music institution.

Principal clarinetist with the Berkeley Symphony, Fukshansky lauds the ensemble's eight other members; their résumés include regular work with the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera Orchestra and other leading groups. "We are the new generation," he says.

Principal clarinetist with the Berkeley Symphony, Fukshansky lauds the ensemble's eight other members, who also perform with the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera Orchestra and other leading groups. "We are the new generation," he says.


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I talked with him about Ensemble San Francisco, which performs this weekend in San Francisco and next week in Saratoga.

Q Why are you doing this? Why now?

A When you look around the greater Bay Area scene, there are a lot of groups popping up. But there is really no consortium or collective devoted to high-level chamber music, focused on the traditional repertory. You have a symphony and an opera company operating at the highest level (in San Francisco), but there's nothing equivalent for chamber musicians.

Q There are top-tier string quartets in the Bay Area, and numerous other good chamber ensembles. You're entering a crowded field.

A We're not competing with those. In fact, we support them. But our model is different. The idea is to have a consortium of musicians that can morph in its instrumental combinations in order to play diverse music. The whole idea is to have the flexibility of first-rate artists presenting chamber music in various combinations, from duets to nonets and beyond, from program to program. We want to stretch our muscles of flexibility. We are not limited, say, to a string quartet format.

Q The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players more or less fit your description, though they devote themselves to new music.

A Yes. And we, too, are interested in contemporary projects, but the traditional repertory is where we put our energies.

Q Do you have any models?

A We try to model ourselves in some ways after the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which draws on a large pool of musicians -- a far grander project than ours. Another model would be (Britain's) Nash Ensemble..., which has about a dozen members and performs a variety of repertory. We're not trying to create a carbon copy of either, but we're using past ensemble models as guides for how to go about things.

Q Is there an audience for what you're doing -- an appetite? This is a tough economy in which to start up a brand new music collective.

A There's a great deal of momentum behind the group. We're not treating it as an experiment. That said, our goal for now is to keep the group only as large as makes sense; we don't want to arbitrarily fill our roster with musicians. Inevitably, the ensemble will expand with time, but we're definitely taking it one step at a time, so that no one in the group is taken for granted. Each member participates equally.

We're still feeling our way through our ideas, learning what interests our audience. I'm sure that in our early years, we'll be creating a conversation with our audience -- in part guiding them and in part being guided by them.

Q Are you going after a young crowd? Is your audience any less gray-haired than most classical audiences?

A At our gala concert in October at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there were definitely a good number of young people. Our ensemble is fairly young itself -- we're in our 20s and 30s -- and the idea is to branch out among our peers. We're inviting fellow professional musicians, as well as friends who are amateur musicians and friends from outside the music world.

So our aim is to nurture the interest in chamber music among a younger audience. We're certainly not pushing away the older audience; we want all ages. But for this music to survive, we need to engage the younger audience, and that becomes a challenge.

Q How will you do it?

A We're definitely exploring online tools: Facebook, Twitter. And we've been thinking about how to incorporate technology into performances. But I think that, first and foremost, it's about the quality of the work that we do. That must be our drawing card, the quality of what we present. That has to be uncompromising, and everything else that we do is an addition.

The art form speaks for itself. We're not trying to prove that classical music is alive; it is alive. I don't think we have to prove that. Whether attendance goes up or down, it's the product that matters, and that's important.

Q You're optimistic?

A Yes, the flexibility and variety that we offer is exciting in itself, because no two concerts are alike. And that flexibility keeps us on our toes, creates a challenge. And that striving for perfection hopefully will yield results -- and hopefully keep the audience equally interested.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.

Ensemble San Francisco
Performing works by Ravel, Fauré, Milhaud, Poulenc
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: San Francisco
Conservatory of Music Recital Hall, 50 Oak St.,
San Francisco
Tickets: $20, $10 students; www.ensemblesanfrancisco.com/concerts
Also: In a collaboration with poets Jeffrey Levine and
Sally Ashton; 6:30 p.m.
Jan. 21, Montalvo Arts Center's Villa, 15400
Montalvo Road, Saratoga; $15, $7 students;
408-961-5858