Karen, Bruce, Richard, and I heard the Chiara Quartet in concert at the Met Museum on 5/12/18. The quartet has been together for eighteen years and this was their final public performance as a full-time quartet. They’re all going off to do different things, I’m excited for them but sad for me! I’ve probably heard them around fifteen times - - the cellist in the quartet, Greg Beaver, was my roommate when I first moved to New York, and I quickly became good friends with all four members, especially Greg and his wife Hyeyung, the second violinist. I described them years ago as "the apex of human achievement," and I thought I was exaggerating, but really, I wasn’t! They have a supreme balance of passion and precision, the collaboration between the four of them is inspiring, and best of all, they communicate the music in a deep and meaningful way.
They opened with a piece that Nico Muhly wrote for them, *Diacritical Marks.* It was his typical “classical lite” style, accessible, pleasant to listen to, not particularly novel or relevant. The piece had eight movements, and three of them used a repeating pattern. The pattern wasn’t really developed, it was just repeated, and the pattern itself wasn’t so special.
The first movement seemed to be the result of a checklist that Muhly had of all of the things that a stringed instrument can do: pizzicato, double stops, harmonics, playing two notes at once, skipping the bow over the string, etc. I'm all for using an instrument in its most idiomatic way, but it seemed a little too deliberate. The highlight of the quartet was the second movement, which started with the three lower players setting it up and Becca, the first violinist, looking quiet and wistful, then playing her elegiac opening phrase with a beguiling mix of guts and grace. She held her violin up, her arms up, her eyes up, like it was an offering to heaven.
The concert was built to show off different important aspects of the quartet. The Muhly and the Philip Glass were examples of their commitment to new works. They played the Beethoven on the second half from memory, something they’ve been doing for the last few years (I twice heard them play all six Bartok quartets from memory, which was without a doubt the best thing I’ve heard them do, and one of the prime experiences of my concert-going life). And they also have been believers in thinking outside the box in their programming, by playing in unusual settings (Karen and I heard them at Cafe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village years ago), by playing single movements of works, and by teaming up with unusual artists.
They brought in the Axion Estin Chanters to do two sets on this concert - - they’re six men from New Rochelle, NY singing Green Orthodox chant. They entered from the back and processed onto the stage. There are four baritones and two basses in the group, with the baritones singing the chant tune and the basses singing a drone. The texture was sort of fuzzy around the edges, even a little sloppy here and there, but in a way that felt authentic. Maybe one of the four baritones sang a little doodle and the others didn’t. Sometimes they weren’t all right at the center of the pitch, which gave great impact to the moments when they were right on target. Of all things, they made me think of *Hello, Dolly!*: some parts were louder than others, but it was never quiet. I loved hearing them, I was thrilled and fascinated by the chanting and their sound, but I’m not sure I’d want to hear a whole program of them. They did two sets on the Chiara concert, after the Muhly and after the Glass, and that was enough.
Pianist Paul Barnes and the Chiaras commissioned Philip Glass to write them a piano quintet. The piece he wrote, *Annunciation,* was in two movements. It was lovely, sunny, with a strong sense of Glass’s distinctive voice. It often felt like a mini piano concerto, with the quartet as the orchestra. Barnes played beautifully, with warmth and style. The second movement went on too long for my taste. It’s never a good idea to have the audience wondering how much longer a piece is going to go on. Here’s the problem, which I’ll state as a question and answer: When a composer writes a piece that’s abstract and repetitive, how does he/she know when it’s over? The answer: He’she might not know, but the audience will know.
The final piece on the program was the Beethoven #15 quartet in A minor, opus 132. Jonah, the violist, made a little introductory speech, saying that the middle movement of this quartet is what made him want to be a musician. It’s a late Beethoven quartet, after he had gone deaf and his music became more experimental. It had abrupt changes in tone, which they played with a sure sense of drama. The first movement alternated between Tristanian longing and a jaunty sort of dance. The second movement was a courtly dance, played with elegance and wit, with delightful double duets - - the two violins, the viola and cello. The duet between the two violinists had me grinning like an idiot.
The third movement, the one Jonah had told us about, had a personal, inward quality. Clearly it meant a great deal to the four performers. This style alternated with a sort of flirty vibe, it was fascinating. The movement had a strange, hovering sort of finish.
The fourth and fifth movements had moments of vigorous, Bartok rawness. I’m sure this piece has been played hundreds (thousands?) of times over the years, but the Chiaras played it like it was as new as the Muhly and the Glass.
There was only one sour note in the concert. The concert hall was in the Metropolitan Museum, and the Met projected their logo, THE MET, onto the back wall of the stage. I assumed it would go away when they started playing, and was bothered and distracted by it being there throughout the concert.
Even worse, when the Chiaras took their bows after the Beethoven, two stage hands came out during their second set of bows and gave them each a Met-branded gift bag! It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.
They played an encore, the third movement of the Debussy quartet. I’d never heard it before and it destroyed me. I had been pushing fluids that morning, I was sure I’d be a weepy mess at the concert. I might have teared up a little here and there, but was surprised that I didn’t produce actual tears. Well, the Debussy did the trick. It was unbearably tender, the perfect way for the quartet to say goodbye to us.