Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Grand Finale From One of This Century’s Most Fearless String Quartets at the Met

How does a string quartet go out in style?  By grabbing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 by the tail and speeding it up at the end, a practice considered treyf in traditional classical circles, but a fearlessly stunning way to cap off an eighteen-year career.

Or by joining a bill spiced with the stern, stygian, somber sonics of a sextet of men in monks’ outfits singing variations on Gregorian chant. ‘

Or with the New York premiere of a major work by the timelessly vital Philip Glass.

In their final major performance, the Chiara String Quartet did all this and more, bowing out at the absolute peak of their powers on familiar turf at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the early zeroes, they’ve championed obscure composers, brought standard repertoire to crowds in bars and jails, and played and recorded one of the most strikingly intuitive Bartok cycles ever released. Violist Jonah Sirota told the crowd soberly that everyone in the group found this concert moving beyond words – the three standing ovations at the end underscored this group’s potency and relevance. What a run they had.

They opened with Nico Muhly‘s Diacritical Marks, an impressively artful, distantly Balkan-tinged theme and variations that eventually circled back on itself – things coming full circle was a major theme throughout this show. Sirota, cellist Gregory Beaver, violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon juggled between flickering and starkly resonating motives as tectonically rhythmic variations rose and fell.

Making a dramatic march from the back of the auditorium, the Axion Estin Chanters delivered an alternately severe and triumphant triptych, working permutations on the same Gregorian melody on which Glass based his Annunciation piano quintet. At first, that piece came across as a magically direct, lushly glittering, Lynchian piano concerto – until Glass’ steady arpeggios shifted to the quartet, and then back and forth. The quartet really dug in for the triumph of the outro against pianist Paul Barnes’ incisively liquid cadences.

Sirota introduced Beethoven’s famous late quartet a the kind of crazy piece that “makes a person want to become a musician.” That made sense, considering how cohesive yet individually focused the performance was. Sirota’s insight into how the lachrymose, prayerfully changing melody of the third movement echoed plainchant and foreshadowed Glass’ work was spot-on. He also alluded to how utterly bizarre the shifts were between those variations and what in this context seemed to be the sheer snark of a courtly dance that leaps further and further toward satire. They took it out with sheer abandon at the end and contrasted with the encore, a mutedly elegaic take of the third movement of the Debussy string quartet. How much fun these four must have had onstage…and how sad that the ride together is over.

All four have plans that dovetail with their pioneering work together. Sirota’s Strong Sad album, examining themes of everyday loss, is due out early this summer. Fischer is moving on with The Afield, a new multidisciplinary duo project with visual artist Anthony Hawley. Beaver and Yoon’s careers continue as educator and impresario, respectively.

Advertisements

May 12, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chiara String Quartet Play Bartok By Heart: A Harrowing, Landmark Achievement

There’s an argument that Bela Bartok’s string quartets are the holy grail of that repertoire. Sure, Beethoven wrote more of them, and so did Shostakovich, and others, but in terms of unrelenting, harrowing intensity, Bartok is unsurpassed. And the Bartok cycle is as daunting to play as it is darkly exhilarating to hear. On one hand, that the Chiara String Quartet would be able to play all six Bartok quartets from memory isn’t as staggering a feat as it might seem, since plenty of other world-class ensembles could do that if they put the time into it. It’s how this ensemble does it that makes their forthcoming double album Bartok By Heart, and their continued performances of these works, such a landmark achievement.

As Chiara cellist Gregory Beaver has explained, the group’s purpose in memorizing all this sometimes cruelly difficult material is to bring the composer’s themes – many of them inspired by or pilfered from North African, Middle Eastern and Romany music – back to their roots. In the process, the group discovered how conversational – some might say folksy – much of it actually turns out to be. New York audiences are in for a treat when the quartet play all six pieces over two nights to celebrate the album’s release at National Sawdust. The August 30, 7 PM concert features Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5; the following night, August 31 features Nos. 2, 4 and 6. Advance tix are $20, and considering how expensive chamber music of this caliber has become in this city, that’s a bargain.

How do these recordings stand out from the rest of the pack? In general, the convivial quality of the composer’s counterpoint – echoing the call-and-response of so many of the original folk themes – comes to the forefront. Dynamics are also front and center, but this interpretation is especially noteworthy for how vigorous the quieter passages are. Bartok’s later quartets, in particular, rely heavily on all sorts of extended technique, high harmonics, ghostly glissandos and sardonically plucky pizzicato, and the group really sink their teeth into them. Passages like the second movement of Quartet No. 3, with all its sepulchral strolls, rises from unease to genuinely murderous heights. Yet, when they have to play their cards closer to the vest, as in the slithery foreshadowing of the twisted dance that develops in the first movement of No. 5, the ensemble revels in that mystery as well.

Emotional content becomes more inescapable within the context of interplay between individual instrumental voices. Bartok saw himself as an exile, and was horror-stricken by the rise of fascism in Europe in the wake of World War I. So it’s no surprise how much of a sense of alienation, abandonment and loss – from Bartok’s point of view, culturally as well as personally – permeates these performances. That, and a grim humor: for example, the wide-angle vibrato of violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon against the plaintive presence of Jonah Sirota’s viola, as they bring to life the the anguished, embittered Quartet No. 1 and its unvarnished narrative of love gone hopelessly off the rails. As underscored in the liner notes by Gabriela Lena Frank  a longtime Chiara collaborator – all this makes the ensemble’s take on this music every bit as relevant now as it was during the waves of displacement, and nationalist terror, and genocide that coincided with the Great War that was supposed to end them all

August 24, 2016 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chiara String Quartet Bring Their Hauntingly Intuitive Bartok Cycle to Bargemusic

What was the crowd like at the Chiara String Quartet‘s exhilarating, intuitive performance of the first half of the Bartok cycle at Bargemusic Friday night? Lots of young people. For that matter, the audience skewed young and old: twentysomethings and fiftysomethings, Generation X being more or less absent. Then again, that’s not surprising: the best legacy that demographic’s been able to muster is “hipster irony.” And the concert sold out, quickly, reaffirming that if Lincoln Center was in Brooklyn, it would be a hotspot. The more simpering, insipid twee-ness poisoning the neighborhood, the greater the backlash, and there is no more satisfying emotional home for that backlash than the music of Bela Bartok.

Ironically (in the genuine sense of the word), Bartok came from a ruling-class background. His music doesn’t critique speculation or gentification: to be antiwar and antifascist was more than enough fuel for his inimitably bleak vision. Gregory Beaver, the Quartet’s passionately eloquent cellist, shared his personal appreciation for Bartok’s own passion as a musicologist, someone who wasn’t content to merely appropriate peasant melodies: he went straight to the source, even if that meant all the way to Morocco. Beaver had a digitized copy of one of Bartok’s North African field recordings in his phone and played it for the audience, telling them to keep an eye out for it in the third movement of String Quartet No. 2. Sure enough, there it was for violinist Rebecca Fischer to voice with a vigorous but wary precision.

How did this performance compare with other ensembles’ interpretations? Those same qualities reaffirmed themselves again and again. As reference points, the Borromeo Quartet’s performance of Bartok’s String Quartet No.4 at Jordan Hall in Boston, and the Calder Quartet’s take of No. 6 (both of which were also on the bill here) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year each had a more anthemic quality than this group’s more intimate, minutely crafted versions. Then again, it’s possible that observation may be colored by the fact that Bargemusic is an intimate venue and those other two are not, and that the groups there may have been playing to those rooms’ sonics. Even so, it was riveting to watch Fischer’s and Hyeyung Julie Yoon’s violins build a marvelously mysterious, distant dust-storm ambience on the third movement of Quartet No. 6, or or to witness the ambered blend that Beaver and violist Jonah Sirota created in the final movement of No. 4. And the way the group negotiated the spiky, pungee-trap pizzicato of the third movement of No. 4 was a treat worth every penny of the $35 cover.

Speaking of which, the Chiara String Quartet return to Bargemusic on October 17 at 8 PM to play Bartok’s String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5, which promise to be every bit as riveting. By the time the doors opened for last week’s performance, there weren’t a lot of seats available: since Bargemusic began selling tickets online, they go fast. Get ’em now while there are still some left – students and seniors both get a discount.

October 2, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chiara String Quartet Revisit a Moment of Terror

One can only imagine the emotional challenge the Chiara String Quartet faced when they premiered Robert Sirota’s 9/11-themed Triptych on September 26, 2002 at New York’s Trinity Church. Sirota was in New York on 9/11, and the Quartet also belong to this city: to evoke such themes as this piece explores must have been nothing short of overwhelming, notwithstanding the year that passed between the tragedy and the premiere. As an evocation of terror and dread, the Triptych ranks with any other work in the classical or avant garde repertoire, including any of the Shostakovich symphonies or string quartets. Again at Trinity Church last night, the Quartet revisited the premiere with a riveting performance of that piece along with another 9/11 requiem of sorts, Richard Danielpour’s String Quartet No. 6, “Addio,” from 2009.

Both works combine narrative and more abstract themes, Danielpour’s being the more melodically accessible. The crash of the planes is alluded to, but the frantic activity in the wake of the impact gives way to a vividly cinematic chase scene of sorts, desperate footfalls across the bridges leading out of Manhattan, perhaps? It was a showcase for the entire quartet and particularly violist Jonah Sirota, whose biting, often fierce pizzicato lit up a surprisingly rock-influenced second movement, alongside cellist Gregory Beaver’s funereal, sometimes aghast, wounded inflections that made a stark contrast with violinists Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon’s eerily shimmering, often stratospherically high atmospherics. Several warm, gently contemplative passages gave way to foreboding and fear and eventually terror. As with Sirota’s piece, it closed with a quietly pleading ambience, reaching for solace but fully aware that for those who have lost loved ones, very often there is no consolation: the pain may recede, but it’s always there, always a millisecond away from returning with a paralyzing intensity.

Behind the Quartet, artist Deborah Patterson’s gray-tinted Triptych – which Sirota meant to interpret with this piece – stood in chilling relief against the back of the church. The first panel depicts one of the towers through a plume of smoke; the second, NYFD chaplain Mychal Judge – one of the first victims of the disaster – being attended to by members of his department; and the third sort of a black-and-white Turner painting, light beaming down eerily on the smoking hole at Ground Zero. Sirota unforgettably depicts all that via frenzied tritones, an evocation of a hellish choir of car alarms, several sirens and their doppler effects, and a bit later, a handful of trucks making their way through a silent desolation. That stricken stillness packed a quiet wallop in contrast to the incessant, rapidfire attack of jarring atonalities that prededed it. This is a cruelly difficult piece to play, but the Quartet rose to the challenge, all hands on deck, with a visceral intensity.

Sirota’s second movement offers brooding, morose, absolutely depleted ambience followed by more anxiously shifting, interwoven segments that were delivered delicately, receded and eventually rose to the most grief-stricken point of the night. As with Danielpour’s piece, Sirota’s concludes on a quietly anguished, prayerful note. As if on cue, the second the piece was over, a siren began to wail outside the church, making its way up Greenwich Street. Perhaps as stunned by this strange stroke of fate as by the music, the audience waited until the sound began to fade before breaking out into applause. Was this the best concert of 2011? Possibly: without a doubt, it was the most intense.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chiara String Quartet Scheme for the Future

It’s hard to imagine a more ambitious advocate for new music than the Chiara String Quartet. They may have made a name for themselves playing Brahms and Beethoven – last time we caught them, they played a brilliantly insightful survey of Beethoven quartets from early to late – but they have their sights set on blazing trails for newer composers. They call their latest project Creator/Curator: the concept is to commission a work and have its composer pick the accompanying pieces on the program, debut it in a small venue and then move it to “more traditional classical venues” next season around. You can see the wheels turning: tonight le Poisson Rouge, tomorrow Lincoln Center. If Sunday night’s performance at LPR is any indication, they have their fingers on an important vein.

This particular program was chosen by Gabriela Lena Frank, an important and eclectic voice who, for what it’s worth, won a latin Grammy last year. The first piece on the bill was Alberto Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 20, which the Quartet tackled with equal parts passion and rigor. Cellist Gregory Beaver propelled the fiery staccato of its “allegro violento e agitato” first movement with relish. Violinist Rebecca Fischer’s gentle, fluidly meticulous glissandos lit up its more ambient, delicate second movement. Artfully playing off the open notes in standard guitar tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), the third movement was delivered with a steely suspense behind Beaver’s incisive pizzicato work and Jonah Sirota’s plaintive viola lines. They wound up the “allegramente rustico” final movement spiritedly with the flavor of a Nordic hardanger dance.

Chou Wen-chung, composer of the following work, Clouds, was present. But rather than establishing a nebulous atmosphere, these clouds take specific shapes. How they morph into other configurations is what makes the piece compelling, from the understated, Asian-inflected drama of the pizzicato opening and closing motifs, to its constantly shapeshifting series of rondo-lets, simple and memorable circular themes bouncing off each other nimbly and playfully to a surprisingly intense, brooding conclusion.

Sirota explained that Frank’s eight-part suite, Milagritos (making its New York premiere) was an exposition of mestizaje, a recurrent theme which for her means celebrating an individual identity drawing from diverse sources – which makes perfect sense in light of her Peruvian-Jewish heritage. Her program notes explained the pieces as illustrations of Peruvian cultural iconography that might seem mundane to others but to her, they’re small miracles. Shrines to accident victims along serpentine mountain roads were portrayed by Julie Yoon’s surprisingly blithe violin against fluttery disquiet, while a stroll alongside Lake Titicaca became a delightfully macabre Bernard Herrmann-esque stalker tableau. Eerie cello cadenzas punctuated stillness in a depiction of pre-Inca panpipe ceremonies; likewise, the jungles were portrayed as impenetrable but with considerable activity lurking just out of range. The suite concluded on a richly haunting, practically stygian note, another roadside shrine scene, Fischer’s long, surgically precise solo passage a vivid contrast with the murky tritone ending. The standing-room-only crowd roared their approval boisterously: if this bill is any indication, the Chiaras’ upcoming concerts in this series will be a treat for the lucky crowds who catch them the first time around in cozy, comfortable confines like these.

October 20, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Chiara String Quartet Play Beethoven in NYC 2/5/10

The Chiara String Quartet are winding up their Beethoven cycle this year. Maybe it’s all the practice, or that they play a lot of concerts in more sonically challenging places like bars and rock clubs, but either way their mastery of the material is such that they can command the subtlest dynamics, some of which when even gently applied make an enormous difference in the music. Not only was their show Friday night a clinic in how to locate the gems tucked away in the corners of a piece and then shine them up so everybody knows they’re there, it was just as much an emotionally charged overview of Beethoven’s career. In the spacious confines of Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church (tucked into the back of the Lincoln Center complex, home to the Jupiter Symphony players), the Chiara Quartet took the audience along for a vivid ride from Beethoven’s first string quartet through one of his last.

The String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3, actually the first that Beethoven ever wrote, dates from the end of the 1700s and really needed all those dynamics. It must be a lot more fun to play than it actually is to listen to: all those endless volleys of call-and-response get tedious after a couple of minutes. How to draw in a 21st century audience far more sophisticated (and probably far larger) than the small circle of courtesans who heard it first? Accentuate its occasional astringencies, its atonalities and proto-modernisms, because there are a bunch of them (Brahms’ more stodgy chamber works are the same way). Perhaps Beethoven craftily wove them in to see how closely everybody was paying attention.

He wrote the String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 in 1808: what a difference ten years made. From the first few tricky syncopations of the opening movement, it was clear that the paradigm had been shifted, and as a result the quartet could ease back and let the piece speak more for itself. The second movement was a feast of little pleasures – a neat pianissimo climb to Vivaldiesque insistence; a clever, artfully orchestrated series of riffs making the rounds, violinist Rebecca Fischer passing off to her counterpart Julie Yoon, to violist Jonah Sirota and cellist Gregory Beaver, who would soon afterward deliver several snappy, intense pizzicato passages including a potently plucked bass solo to end it.

The piece de resistance was the A Minor, Op. 132, one of the late quartets from just two years before Beethoven’s death. It has reputation for transcendence and was precisely that. Yoon held wary and unwavering early on while the other voices conversed around her; Sirota led them into wintry terrain, viola and cello adding a gravitas mostly absent from the rest of the program. The highlight was the third movement, written after the composer had recovered from what he’d thought was the illness that would finally kill him, and in this ensemble’s hands it took on the raptly hymnal, plaintive tone of a giant, haunting accordion chord and successive permutations – minimalism, 1825 style.

The Chiara String Quartet are here tomorrow, 2/7 playing the same program at 4 PM at Union Church of Bay Ridge, 8101 Ridge Blvd. and 80th St. in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; they’re back on 4/26 at Symphony Space for the Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival.

February 7, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments