Classical music that mates with folk

Two concerts, one by a string quartet and the other by a vocal trio, show how this music can be dramatic and accessible again. Maybe Seattle, too, is joining the parade to music that is contemporary, well staged, and far from routine.
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Trio Mediaeval.

Two concerts, one by a string quartet and the other by a vocal trio, show how this music can be dramatic and accessible again. Maybe Seattle, too, is joining the parade to music that is contemporary, well staged, and far from routine.

I took in two concerts last week, one at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus last Tuesday, Nov. 27, and the other at Seattle's Town Hall on Friday night, Nov. 30. Lovely. lovely music by first-rank artists. But what was most encouraging were the signs of how classical music is wriggling out of its straightjacket. Maybe there really is hope that this music will find a way to be more accessible, popular, and dramatic.

The Meany concert presented the Chiara String Quartet, a group of young players who met at Juilliard. The program was all modern music, with only one "mainstay" work, Bartok's String Quartet No. 2, dating from World War I. The music was very well played, if a little heavy on the throttle (the Juilliard curse).

But here's what was notable. First of all, the program made coherent sense: All the pieces explored the relationship of folk music to classical music, and in the most contemporary pieces we had a gloriously post-modern mixing of folk traditions. Gabriela Lena Frank is Peruvian-Jewish-Chinese, and Osvaldo Golijov is a Russian-East European Jew from Argentina. They made Bartok, who was a magpie for peasant music from Turkey to North Africa, the proper centerpiece and inspiration for the evening.

Not only that, but the Chiara folks split up the Frank work, six sections described as "an Andean walkabout," into three separate groups, making the evening a version of "Pictures at an Exhibition," where we stroll from one vista to another. For the main work of the second half, Golijov's harrowing Yiddishbbuk of 1992, the quartet played in near darkness, with lights on the four music stands and three pictures on the rear wall brightly illuminated. Another attractive innovation of the evening was having each piece end with a sudden darkness, during which we applauded. When the lights came back up, the musicians set into the next work, sparing us all that routine bowing, smiling, striding off stage and back on. (Good idea at Meany especially, since it's a quarter-mile walk across that huge stage.)

So it added up to a dramatic, compelling, demanding evening. Something very exciting is going on at Meany this year, aided perhaps by some dropping attendance and therefore a willingness to experiment on new groups. This seems like a good idea for a university series to follow, especially in a town of such conservative musical programming by others.

The other concert was Trio Mediaeval, presented by Early Music Guild, the town's best presenter of quality touring groups. The concert by these celebrated three Scandinavian singers was sold out two weeks in advance. They are extraordinary professionals, presenting the whole program from memory and singing with a celestial purity of tone and precision of pitch.

Here, too, was a program that was coherent, all Norwegian folk songs, ballads, lullabies, and a few hymns. They made full use of Town Hall's lovely acoustics, sometimes singing from out in the audience, processing, playing with a percussionist, and guiding the audience seamlessly from song to song so we could stay in a rapture. Mercifully, there was just one Christmas tune.

Both Trio Mediaeval and Chiara bring to their performances something of the spirit of indie rock groups, meaning that they are young and unstuffy. Chiara plays in taverns and clubs as well as concert halls, and their cellist has a pigtail. The Trio sings at jazz clubs, looks smashing and is hip as thou, and sells huge numbers of their very slickly packaged CDs. (Their new album, Folk Music, has many of the songs from their concert, but I must say it sounded much better live at Town Hall, without the excessive reverb in the CD.) Chiara spent the rest of last week at the Tractor Tavern and in front of public school classrooms. As with their music, these groups "cross over."

It will be interesting to see if Seattle can catch some of this new spirit of classical music-plus. My sense is that we have a long way to go to catch up with New York or Portland and certainly Europe, but that the audiences are now starting to come to Seattle, as part of the wave of creative people flooding in for the new jobs.

Good as all this is to report, I do also have some caveats. A whole evening of Norwegian folk music, presented in elegant arrangements by the Trio, can leave you longing for more of the swing and bite of the real thing, as well as some sadness at not having the group do their specialty, polyphonic medieval and contemporary music. The talk about intercultural understanding that undergirds the Quartet's approach is sweet, but the music is much more expressive of broken melodies and imprisoned folk material crushed by the honking urban modernism that overlays it. Despite the coherence of the programs, none really had an emotional center of gravity, an unforgettable major work.

Classical music in the nineteenth century, particularly symphonies, underwent a change from being a show to being a substitute religious service, with hushed audiences and reverent boredom. Not opera, which remained a show that audiences were very much into, interrupting the flow to cheer and demand a repeat. Last week, I dared to hope that the long, solemn detour from showtime to worship service might be coming to an end. Even here!


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