The Chiara Quartet is back on tour and has one more show in NYC this week (they actually played Sunday in Southport, CT and tonight(!) at Symphony Space but your humble/slacker correspondent wasn’t able to get this ready in time for y’all).  Anyway, you’ll still have a chance to catch them on Wednesday at (Le) Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street) performing Different Trains, Webern’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, and Jefferson Friedman’s 2nd Quartet.

Somehow Jonah, Becca, Julie, and Greg were able to find time between rehearsals and performances to answer a few questions for us.  Enjoy….

JH: During this tour you’ll be pairing Beethoven with Jefferson Friedman one night (Sunday in Southport, CT), and Steve Reich with Anton Webern another night (Wednesday at Le Poisson Rouge). How does the quartet come up with, and agree on, these kinds of programs? Is this just an extension of a “shuffle” musical experience that our generation is getting so used to?

Well, the “shuffle” idea is interesting, in that I’m sure there are pairings we would consider that might not have been considered in the pre-ipod era.  Having said that, we think quite a bit about our programs.  Jefferson Friedman writes very well-crafted forms–the quartets are as formally strict as much of Beethoven (especially since Beethoven was basically trying to expand and sometimes explode form).  And yet the vocabulary is completely different.  So that’s an interesting juxtaposition.  Reich (“Different Trains”) uses nearly a half-hour of repeated music and voice to build an unexpected emotional bridge between his own childhood train travel and the experience of Holocaust survivors.  Webern manages to say everything he needs to, sometimes, in only ten measures of music.  Both work brilliantly, so that’s another interesting combination for us.  Programs are often a creative collaboration between us and a presenter.  Some programs are entire evenings that we conceptualize.  Next year, we are commissioning several composers and having them curate the program for their premiere (the project is called Creator/Curator).  So, it really depends on the performance.  But, the way the four of us are, we only play music that we all believe in.

JH: Another thing that seems to be really important to the quartet is playing in lots of different kinds of venues – big concert halls, small recital halls, libraries, bars, etc. Does the venue inspire the programming or does the programming inspire the venue?

We feel that string quartet music appeals to all people, all audiences, which is one reason why we choose to perform in varied spaces.  Many spaces work well for listening to chamber music, and there is no “ideal” space (i.e. the formal silence of a concert hall can be stifling, and the clunking of an ice-machine in a bar can be distracting), so we try to create an environment on any stage that is inviting for audiences.  We do tailor programming to certain spaces but we also challenge a space to host partlcular programs.  We usually organize our club programs into two set lists, much like you would hear from a jazz quartet, and we tend to focus more on newer music for these performances.  So in the opening set you could hear a movement from a quartet by Jefferson Friedman, followed by a movement from Haydn, followed by some Webern, followed by more Friedman, maybe some Brahms, etc.  We feel like audiences often want a full piece by the second set, so we’ll perform a complete work in most of these venues, certainly not minding applause between movements (we encourage it if people are so moved!).  We have brought this more varied style of programming to concert halls, and have found that the environment is more relaxed than usual–we don’t usually bow until the end of a set, and we talk from the stage.  In these situations we also talk to individual audiences members during intermission.

The more informal atmosphere of a club and the ability to change our program on the spot is wonderfully liberating and has inspired us to be more inventive in all of our performances–this applies to the spontaneity of playing itself and the actual programming.   Most of our more interesting programs in concert halls have come from the freedom we feel in unconventional spaces and the idea that we are “curating” an evening.

JH: The quartet premiered a new piece by Ivan Moody (Monday at Symphony Space), can you tell us about it?

It is a piece written for string quartet and piano entitled Nocturne of Light.  We’ll be premiering it at Symphony Space with pianist Paul Barnes who is a colleague of ours at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (where we’re in residence).  Paul is a devout believer in the Greek Orthodox faith and is continually exploring how spirituality and music connect.  This piece is a beautiful outcome of that exploration and features Byzantine chants, one of which Paul and his son will intone before our performance.

JH: I know it’s important to the quartet that “new” works are programmed next to “old” works. Do you find that your audience is coming for the new and sitting through the old, or is it more like they are coming for the old and sitting through in the new? And I guess the follow up question is: does it matter?

Honestly, it is very difficult for us to determine exactly why our audience shows up.  Only a very small sample ever give us any feedback as to why they decide to take the time to come hear us.  Based on feedback we have gotten, it seems that people who show up with no expectations about what makes good classical music seem to like any of the music we play, and are equally receptive to old and to new.  The most common response is something along the lines of “I didn’t know classical music could sound like that, that’s cool.”  This is a group of people whose exposure to classical music is primarily through weddings, parties, TV commercials, and movies about weddings or parties.  Thus, your Pachelbel Canon, blandly played movement of a Mozart quartet: this is what most people seem to think of as classical music.  For this group, it’s all new music, and so I would say it matters less to them how old a piece is.  What really matters is how engaging the performance is, as this kind of listener is not likely to distinguish the quality of the composition from the quality of the performance.

As for the polarized audience you describe (old vs. new, new vs. old), I still think that these divisions are false: if a performance is moving, it will strike the divisions down in a heartbeat.  A classic example is from a performance we gave on Sep. 15, 2001 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  Our program included Berg Op. 3, which still sounds quite new even 100 years later.  Our work with the piece had been to bring out the dark, tortured emotions and when September 11 happened, we were unsure whether it would be too much to play this piece.  In the end, we did play it, but talked about the connection between the chaos and uncertainty of Vienna before the first world war and the chaos and uncertainty of the United States 4 days after September 11.  Our hope was that by making a connection to a time from the past, it gives one comfort in that one is not alone.  After the concert, several people came up to us and told us they never would have listened to the Berg before, but felt a powerful connection to it on that day.  On the flip side, the same principle holds true in our performances of Haydn and Mozart in a club setting.  Sandwiching a Mozart movement in between a movement from a Jefferson Friedman quartet and Webern can give it a fresh feeling that appeals directly to the sensibilities of an audience member who is striving after the new.

Not all audience members can be pleased, I distinctly remember hearing about one North Dakotan who still hated the Berg, and some people will never like Mozart, but the segment of the audience that is dying for a vivid experience and simply wants to feel safe having that experience will respond to a great piece regardless of whether it still has the shrink wrap on it or is printed on papyrus.

JH: Before I let you go, I always like to ask musicians about their experiences working with composers or if they have any advice for composers. Any stories you would like to share or any words of wisdom?

I did a recital my senior year of college in which I premiered commissioned works by three composer friends.  I loved it!  And I got free pieces from people I still love working with today.  I guess I’d really like to tell instrumentalists to try this out while still in school.  Your friends become the important aesthetic voices of your generation.  It’s hard to believe it will happen, but it does!

Becca: We are fortunate enough to have great relationships with some composers of our generation, several of whom have written us multiple works.  If you are a composer, develop strong relationships with performers, and write for those people.  The music you write will be much more powerful in its dedication to your friends.

Julie: After performing Reichs Triple Quartet at Miller Theatre alongside Pacifica and Ying Quartets in 2004, I was talking to Jefferson Friedman about feeling personally challenged by complicated and elongated rhythmic patterns.  He was writing his third string quartet for us during that time.  Because of this conversation, he proceeded to write (surprise!) complicated and elongated passages in sevens for the second violin.  Of course it turned out to be one of the most amazing passages in the piece, so Ive given up holding a grudge.

Greg: I was at a festival one summer which featured an orchestra work by a prominent composer.  I remember vividly one late-night orchestra rehearsal, with the composer conducting.  The piece was incredibly colorful, but required tremendous concentration and attention to detail in order to pull it off.  At one point, he repeatedly stopped the orchestra to ask the timpani player to play “not near the edge of the timpani, but on the edge.”  At the time, everyone was annoyed at this nitpicking, but there really was a huge difference in the sound, and it really did make an obvious difference in the quality of the performance.  Unfortunately, most of the orchestra didn’t agree with that assessment at the time, as it was almost 10:30PM, and very nearly revolted, something I haven’t seen in an orchestral rehearsal since then.  The principals just barely managed to keep the orchestra on task until the rehearsal ended 30 minutes after its scheduled end time.  If there’s a moral to the story, it would be for performers to trust the strong instincts of great composers, and for composers to end your rehearsals on time if you want the performers to pay attention to you!