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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.

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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