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Taking chamber music to the clubs

Chiara String Quartet plays a lively set at Chop Suey: contemporary musicians making a contemporary world of sound.

Chiara String Quartet: many venues.

Chiara String Quartet: many venues.

In politics, a candidate has to find the people where they are, not just tell them where to show up for the rally. You can start a campaign on line, where there are lots of people, too, but you’d better bring money, sex, and fear to get that party started.

For some leaders in classical music, especially the kind who can travel light, they’re going where the music (and people) are, that is to say, where music is growing instead of shrinking. And the result is that while the salad days of classical music in America may have turned to jicama and vinegar long ago, it looks like we’re in for a long and rowdy classical night.

Chiara String Quartet, a gifted foursome who have played together for a decade, came to Seattle this week, and decided to follow their concert at traditional Meany Hall on the U.W. campus with a gig at Chop Suey (Feb. 9), the club on Madison that bills itself as the “most diverse venue in Seattle, hosting rock, electronic, indie, hip hop, world, alt-country, and DJs of all sorts.” And now, chamber music.

Ten years into their much-heralded trajectory, there is something very fresh about seeing Chiara in a dark, red, pop-ironic space. Rebecca Fischer, violin, Julie Hye-Yung Yoon, violin, Jonah Sirota, viola, and Gregory Beaver, cello, dress without formality, and they clearly enjoy being on a stage 22 inches off the ground and about 24 inches from the club-goers. Not a novelty for them — on their last visit to Seattle, they played the Tractor Tavern in Ballard, and back in New York they're booked at the Le Poisson Rouge and Galapagos, living up to their slogan, "chamber music in any chamber."

They are fighting the good fight. We all ought to know better, but the image of classical musicians and their audience as fussy foppish snobs — think back to ersatz Seattleite Frasier Crane — has dominated American media for 100 years. It is still a statement to play Beethoven in a room with no maestro, no bows, and no standing-ovations-because-you-paid-so-much-for-the-tickets.

Instead, you see, and hear, four preternaturally talented musicians who are part of a living culture of contemporary classical music. There may be better acoustic environments than this type of club, and there may be more outlier performing talents in the world of strings, but for my stamp on the wrist (it really is a club), the evening with Chiara is a tonic reminder of how lively, intelligent, and new chamber music can be. In their time in Seattle, they played school assemblies, middle schools, master classes — connecting performance and composition, preaching to the converted and the indifferent. They are ambassadors, and they are good at their job.

At Chop Suey, the room was cold, set at a temperature that would have worked if there were a DJ and a couple hundred dancers. After an hour wait (just like a jazz club, and we even waited on line outside to get in!), they began, without introduction, into a penetrating movement from Nico Muhly’s just premiered “Diacritical Marks.” In the presence of the new.

This quartet is committed to playing full cycles of Beethoven’s string quartets. So next they moved on to his very late Opus 130, playing first the  German dance of the fourth movement. By then they had made their point across the centuries. The relaxed manner doesn’t mean they lack for intensity, but rather it yields a certain grace.  And then something else happened. They eased up in when they came to the fifth movement, a short and simple song (“cavatina”). Yes, it is a chestnut, not Beethoven in his provocative glory. And yet. In this funny room with a fancy ginger ale, watching as a beatific calm seemed to come over the quartet and the room. At the end, the cellist gave a smile that only comes when you’ve been part of something inconceivably greater than you.


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