The Chiara String Quartet may have performed in some of America’s most prestigious venues, but their attitude towards classical music is anything but elitist. As well as Carnegie Hall, the group has appeared in less traditional spaces such as pubs, clubs, and sandwich bars. The group, who are the current Blodgett Artist-in-Residence at Harvard, will continue this trend by performing in both Paine Hall and the Queen’s Head Pub this week.
“[Playing in non-traditional venues] has got some obvious disadvantages,” says Jonah B. Sirota, the group’s violist. “Acoustically it’s not as good, people aren’t paying as much attention. The advantages for us are really that we’re potentially reaching a different audience... it’s more relaxed, people don’t feel like they have to dress up or fit into any sort of socioeconomic bracket.”
While they don’t see themselves as an outreach program, cellist Gregory L. Beaver hopes to inspire a love of classical music in a wider audience.
“What appeals to me is finding the casual listener who realizes that they really love the music that we’re playing [and] the intensity of what we do as a string quartet,” says Beaver.
On Wednesday, the quarter will perform in Paine Hall, while on Thursday, the group will bring their “Chamber Music in Any Chamber” to the Queen’s Head Pub for a free concert. The quartet was unable to reveal what they would be playing at the pub—not because it’s a secret, but because they rarely decide club show set lists before the day of the performance. “We like to keep it fresh,” says Rebecca J. Fischer, the first violinist.
Fischer hinted, however, that the audience will likely hear compositions by Beethoven—as suggested by the show’s tagline, “Beethoven in Bars”—as well as brand new pieces. “We have some newly commissioned works from young composers... we just received them this past month. If we’re lucky, we’ll try to play some of that,” she says.
The Chiara (clear, pure, or light in Italian) Quartet is composed of Sirota, Beaver, Fischer, and Julie Yoon on second violin. Rising stars in the world of chamber music, the group’s performances have been described as “truly breathtaking” by the Washington Post and “superb” by the New York Times.
The history of the quartet goes back to 1993, when Beaver and Fischer, then high school students, attended the Musicorda chamber music festival at Mt. Holyoke College. But their separate college careers made it impossible for them to convene on a consistent basis. “It was kind of a pipe dream for a while,” Sirota says.
Yet when all three ended up at the Julliard School for their master’s degrees, and Yoon joined the group to complete the line-up, they won a Chamber Music America residency to live and play concerts in North Dakota. “We packed up and moved from New York City to Grand Forks, North Dakota. Culture shock is probably an understatement,” says Beaver.
According to Sirota, the quartet used the rural residency as a springboard to perform in competitions, and ended up building a reputation and concert repertoire by playing in renowned venues like New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
That burgeoning reputation also led to their being selected for the Blodgett Residency at Harvard for 2008-09. The Blodgett Residency is a two-year-long program which, according to the Harvard Department of Music website, “provides for distinguished artists and ensembles to spend four weeks each year in residence at Harvard University offering workshops, coaching and lessons to Harvard students.” Each residency requires the group to perform at least one free public concert.
Professor Thomas Kelly outlined the main criteria the Blodgett Committee used during the decisions process.
“Essentially what we’re looking for is a group that’s young, dynamic, exciting, excellent musicians, and with a willingness to explore a wide range of repertoires and venues. But musical excellence has to come first, and we think [the Chiara Quartet] are just terrific,” Kelly says.
Coinciding with their residency at Harvard, the quartet is also embarking upon an ambitious mission to play all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in concert—some portion of which the Queen’s Head audience is likely to hear Thursday.
“We’re hardly original in this project. Playing all Beethoven’s string quartets is akin to running a marathon or climbing Mount Everest. It’s one of the big goals a string quartet can aspire to,” Sirota says.
Despite their ubiquity, Beethoven’s quartets still hold a special appeal for the group. “He put his most interesting and sometimes his most intimate work into his quartets,” Sirota says. “Beethoven went through such dramatic artistic and aesthetic changes over the course of his life that you can put together programs that are interesting, and have a great variety of music, just made up of his quartets.”
Now in the second year of their residency, the quartet is setting about continuing the diverse projects they began last year. In 2008 the group spent its four weeks on campus doing everything from sight readings of student composers’ works to performing at House dinners and giving demonstrations in music theory lectures. “We’re really available for what people want to use us for,” Sirota says.
As for their upcoming performances, Beaver warns audiences to be prepared. “Intensity is the name of the game,” he says, “so seatbelts are required.”
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