Let’s do a little time travel - - back to May of 2002. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, and had a dinner date with my dear friends Bill and Martha. I told them about my move to New York, which was happening in three months. They were a little aghast that I was moving without an apartment, roommate, or job - - but I had faith that everything would shake out. Martha told me she had two nieces who lived in New York, and she’d get me in touch with them, they might be helpful to me. I took that to mean that we’d have lunch when I moved to town, maybe they’d have a lead on a job.
Martha called me at work at 10:30 the next morning - - she had called her niece Becca after I left the night before, and Becca gave her the name and phone number of her friend Greg. Becca is the first violinist in the Chiara String Quartet, and Greg is the cellist. The quartet was moving to New York and Greg was the one member who didn’t yet have a living situation. That Martha, does she rock, or what?
I called Greg and we both got a good feeling from each other over the phone, and we decided to put aside a week at the end of July to look for an apartment. We met in the city (at a Starbuck’s by Lincoln Center) and we instantly liked each other. It took us twenty minutes to find an apartment, but that’s another story. We were roommates until the quartet moved to Lincoln, Nebraska a few years later.
My favorite story about the quartet from the New York years: they rehearsed at our place, since we had the most floor space. One day, within our first few weeks in New York, I was on hold with the phone company, needing an update on when they were sending a technician to put a jack in my bedroom. I was on hold for twenty-five minutes. The quartet was in the living room, totally going to town on a Shostakovich quartet. Someone at the phone company finally picked up, I started explaining my problem, and she said, “You’ll have to turn down your music, I can’t hear you.” I said, “I can’t turn it down, there’s a string quartet in my living room.” Click. Dial tone.
I heard them perform many, many times and have never been less than blown away by them. They have the perfect balance of precision and passion. It’s music making at the very highest level.
A couple of years ago they decided to record the Brahms quartets. They started rehearsing them, and thought there was something missing in their performance, they needed to bring something extra to the music. Hyeyung, the second violinist, suggested that they memorize them. They gave it a try and were amazed by the results - - they had a deeper connection to the music and to each other. It’s very unusual, by the way, for a quartet to play from memory. They decided to memorize more of their repertoire, and booked two concerts in New York, where they’ll play the six Bartók string quartets. I was over the moon about this - - I heard them play the fourth Bartók quartet when I first moved to New York, and it became one of my favorite pieces in the world.
The first concert in the series was on September 26th - - they played the second, fourth, and sixth quartets. The next concert is later this month, they’ll play the other three. Richard and I are going to both. The concerts are at Bargemusic, a concert venue along the coast of Brooklyn, on a barge. A good friend of mine refers to it as “Barfmusic” - - the undulating of the boat wasn’t something that agreed with him. It took some getting used to, but it wasn’t so distracting after all.
Greg introduced each piece, and he’s so adorable and articulate. He explained that Bartók was a pioneer in integrating folk music into classical music, he traveled throughout Eastern Europe and in Algiers, recording and notating local folk music. The first quartet they played, the second, had many of the distinguishing marks of Bartók: abrupt tempo changes, inventive writing for the strings, unusual rhythmic patterns.
This quartet had a moment where the cello played a warm, sunny figure in a major key with something foreign swimming over it in the other parts. The result is a little unsettling, in a good way. There was another moment when the second violin and viola played a repetitive figure with a driving rhythm - - the first violin came in playing something calmer over it, and then the cello playing something unrelated under it. I wondered if the first violin was supposed to be the melody and the other parts the accompaniment, or if the cello was the melody, or if the second violin and viola were the focal point, with the other parts playing a counterpoint to them. I stopped trying to figure out and decided to listen to it simply as a number of things happening at the same time.
Greg described the final movement as “depressing” - - I describe it as “searching.”
I was so hopped up to hear them play this piece again, and it was just as extraordinary as I wanted it to be. I mentioned before that I heard them play it many years ago, and I told them they should play that piece at every concert - - they should play it every time they buy yogurt. They didn’t take me up on either offer, but I was pleased to get to hear them play it again all the same.
The piece has an interesting structure: it’s in five movements, with the first and last movements mirroring each other, the second and fourth movements mirroring each other, and the middle movement mirroring itself. This sounds like an intellectual exercise, but I really can’t think of another piece of chamber music that’s so exciting. Maybe the Bloch piano quintet, which sounds like a swarm of insects. But maybe you don’t go for that kind of thing.
The fourth movement is written with the four players plucking the strings throughout, they never play with the bow. It was so delightful, I was grinning like an idiot. There was a moment later in this quartet when Becca was hunched over, playing something skittish, mothlike. Then the melody shifted to Hyeyung, and completely changed character - - she leaned back and played with such power and command. She was TAKING OVER.
Richard and I sat in the front row, on the far left. This gave us a great view of Becca’s back - - I was amazed at how expressive she is, even when you can’t see her face. She was wearing a sleeveless dress, and I was transfixed by the muscles in her right shoulder, I could not stop watching them. We also had a good full-on view of the violist, Jonah. I’ve been friends with five or six string quartets over the years, and have found that the sexiest member is always the violist, male or female. What is up with that?
Each movement of this quartet (Bartók’s last) starts with a slow and sad introduction. Bartók wrote it in 1939, as the war was breaking out in Europe. It was the last piece he wrote in Hungary, before moving to New York.
Jonah opened the piece with a solo, none of the others playing with him - - he played it in such a direct and eloquent way, it perfectly set the tone for the piece. I heard a lot of the ideas that were explored in the other pieces, but they were made their appearance in a more resigned manner. The final moments were so gentle and tender, like a parent looking in on a child in bed and then switching off the light.
- - - - - -
Richard and I went to the second (and final) concert in the Chiara Quartet's Bartok cycle on 10/17/14. It was just as amazing as the first concert, they blow me away every time I hear them. I'll remind you that they're playing all the quartets from memory. This time I had my eye out to see how it changes their behavior in the performances - - I expected that being liberated from printed music would free them up to look at each other, but they didn't appear to be watching each other very much. I think they're been playing together so long, they don't NEED to look at each other. Do you need to look at the keyboard when you type? OK, maybe you do, maybe that's not such a good example, but it's something like that. They know the music so well, and the other three members so well, they don't need to watch each other.
Greg said in his introduction that this quartet had a Wagnerian quality, with suspended tonality and motives being woven through the texture. I could definitely hear that - - it also had the Wagnerian mixture of intellect and heart-on-sleeve emotion (and we're talking about Northern Europeans here, so that emotion only rarely is happiness). But all bets were off about halfway through. The noble Teutonic mood lifted, and Greg (the cellist) played a raucous repeating figure and Jonah (the violist) came in with a heavy, dancing figure. He played it with such force and depth, my eyes welled up with tears. They perfectly captured the Central European folk element - - I could feel my toes in the mud.
There were alternating duets a little later on, between Greg and Jonah and then between Becca and Hyeyung, the two violinists. It was always the two parts playing a tune in harmony - - the same rhythm but different pitches. In every freaking case (and there were three or four of these duets) the parts were perfectly matched. It was kinda mind-boggling, how perfectly matched they were. The piece ended with a big splash, a dizzying dance. It was thrilling. This is an early Bartok piece, Opus 7, written when Bartok was 28, and I wasn't expecting the music to be as fully-formed as the later quartets - - it was every bit as exciting and brilliant as the 4th quartet, my favorite.
This quartet was the least satisfying of the six. It was half as long as the first quartet - - 15 mins versus 30. It held my interest the whole time, and the Chiaras played it marvelously, of course, but it just didn't speak to me. The string writing was very inventive - - a lot of swooping and a few moments where there were different effects being used at the same time, that was wonderful to hear. And I'm not sure if it was in this quartet or one (or more) of the others, but every once in a while Bartok has the players doing more than one thing at a time, like playing with the bow and plucking the string at the same time. Here's how it works: place the middle finger of your left hand on the fingerboard to produce the pitch you want. Hold the bow with your right hand and draw it across the string. Now, with the index finger of your left hand, pluck one of the other strings. Rinse. Repeat.
Another stunner. So many colors, I couldn't believe the range of colors that just four instruments can make. I got the feeling that a string quartet is one of the forms where a composer can really show off.
This quartet had a few examples of what I call the Say You, Say Me Effect. You know that dreadful song by Lionel Richie, "Say You, Say Me?" Say it together. There's a moment about two-thirds of the way through the song where it abruptly changes tempo and mood, and then just as abruptly changes again. It's like you've turned the dial on the radio and are now tuned into a different station. Bartok loves to do that. Maybe that's where Lionel Richie got the idea? Doubtful. Greg had prepared us for a joke near the end of the piece, and it was a creepy use of the Say You, Say Me Effect - - they were going along, playing some wacko modern Hungarian business, and suddenly they were playing in a faux 18th century hoity toity style. It's like they were wearing heavy cotton work clothes, dancing around in a lather one moment, and then they were sitting wearing brocaded silk breeches and powdered wigs. I'm not sure if Bartok instructs the players to play it this way, but the Chiaras played this short section in a deliberately wonky and childlike manner, adding to the disturbance.
The ending was so frenzied and so outrageous, I had to pick up my teeth off the floor.