Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chiara Quartet takes listeners on a global adventure

Young, adventurous and daring the Chiara Quartet is blazing a path in the classical music world that isn't as foreign as it once was. The quartet regularly performs in clubs, bars and other non-traditional venues, they insist on programming at least one "new" piece of music in each concert, and aren't afraid of challenging their audience.

Its a tried, but generally new formula for chamber music and its a formula that fits with the  smorgasbord nature of classical music today. Arguably, the group's approach to performance and music is more authentic and truer to the historical roots of chamber music. Chamber music was initially conceived for parlors, private residences, and if there was going to be an audience intimate performance spaces. Not unlike today's clubs, bars, and other social gathering spots today.

Don't be fooled though. This isn't an ensemble that masks bad technique with good looks (although they are a pretty dashing bunch), amplified instruments, and tight clothes. The Chiara Quartet can play. They are also comfortable in traditional performance spaces (like Meaney Hall). The group has been praised by the New York Times, joined the University of Nebraska as artists in residence, will soon spend time at Harvard, and were rewarded with the Guarneri Quartet Residency Award for artistic excellence.

On their two day stop in Seattle the ensemble will spend time in two distinct musical worlds. Tuesday, the quartet performed as part of the University of Washington World Chamber Series which features chamber ensembles from around the world. Tonight they head on down to the Tractor Tavern for a performance.

On Tuesday the quartet offered their thematic program Mestizaje: Harmony of Differences. This intelligently conceived program is completely modern and features Gabriella Lena Frank's Leyendas, An Andean Walkabout, Bela Bartok's introspective second quartet, Osvaldo Golijov's Yiddishbbuk, and Chinese-American composer Zhou Long's Song of the Ch'in.

Each piece represents a fusion of cultural influences. In Frank's Walkabout the composer delves into South American folk melodies and mimics the instruments commonly found in the Andes Mountains. Similarly Zhou Long's Ch'in fuses the sounds and gestures of the Ch'in, a seven stringed plucked zither, with the very Western string quartet. Bartok's folk discoveries from Hungary and elsewhere are on obvious display in the composer's second quartet, but are synthesized with the composer's own classical influences.

The emphasis on cross cultural influences compliments the quartet well. In many ways the quartet is as cross cultural as the music they played. Juilliard trained the quartet has taken up residence in Lincoln, Nebraska. A college town in the middle of the country. The quartet founded a music festival in North Dakota rather than more glamorous, and culturally invigorating locations on the East or West coast. And, as was already mentioned, the ensemble plays as often in clubs and bars, venues not traditionally known for classical music, as they do in the concert hall.

Prefacing Tuesday's performance, the group's violist Jonah Sirota, explained the narrative of the evening. Each piece would be played but the quartet wouldn't be bowing in between each work. The end of each work would be marked by a darkened hall. And, Frank's six movement Walkabout, would be divided in three, two movement sections, filling out the beginning, middle and end of the concert. Dividing Walkabout worked beautifully. Effectively, each two movement section acted as a tour guide. Like a good tour guide, the audience could rest easy knowing that after each adventure in unfamiliar musical territory, they would be met on their return by friendly and familiar sounds.

Though each piece shared a similar synthesis of diverse cultures, they were also remarkably different. Yiddishbbuk was fierce but mournful as the composer paid tribute to the dead. Walkabout was tuneful and evocative, conjuring images and sounds of South America, traditional instruments, and folk melodies. Zhou Long's Ch'in recalled the mystery and tradition of China. Even Bela Bartok's second quartet offered glimpses into a composer who relied on the music of the people for inspiration, but found himself living in seclusion because of World War I.

The Chiara Quartet played these different pieces brilliantly. As an ensemble their sound was rich and full not thin as can sometimes happen. This attribute served the group in the Bartok, and especially the first movement which ranks as some of the most sensuous music Bartok ever wrote.  The quartet was equally comfortable in the furious musical landscape of Osvaldo Golijov. Their intensity never flagged.

For me, however, it was the group's performance of Walkabout which impressed me the most. The piece navigated so much different territory and plumbed so many different sounds that it was the perfect showcase for the ensemble's collective and individual abilities. The Chiara was incisive (canto de velorio - fifth movement); seductive (coquetos - sixth movement) and exotic (Himno de Zamponas - third movement)

The Chiara Quartet is a daring, able ensemble with respect for the intelligence of their audience. Other quartets might have balked at the prospect of performing a program of largely unfamiliar works. If the Meaney Hall audience was reluctant to commit themselves to the global and culture crossing musical adventure presented by the Chiara Quartet, any worries the audience may have had were put at ease with the group's expert performance and obvious charisma.

The Chaira Quartet will be performing in Seattle one more time at the Tractor Tavern in Ballard. The concert starts at 8:00 p.m.

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