Taking chamber music to the clubs

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

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Chiara String Quartet: many venues.

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

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.

It hadn’t even been a half hour. The program took interesting returns, back to Muhly, back to Beethoven, from the early 1800s the early 2010s and back, never going beyond two movements of one piece at a time. Nothing startling to the expectations of contemporary classical enthusiasts, or anyone who has been in or visited a rehearsal, and yet a reminder of how much of classical music is, in fact, broken into short components that are not surprisingly similar to those of popular music across all the genres that Chop Suey promotes.

Perhaps there is a universal attention span, and perhaps it isn’t so bad to put the play list on shuffle. There’s an audience that needs to hear the eight movements of Muhly’s "Diacritical Marks" in one sitting, and there’s also an audience that needs to know that classical music, brand new or centuries old, is hardy enough for this type of rapid complexity, without assuming it constitutes dumbing down.

The next part of the program was the fourth movement of Daniel Ott’s String Quartet No. 2, composed for Chiara and world-premiered the night before at Meany Hall. It is such an evocative piece that it is hard to resist thinking of it as “program music,” with tones and rhythms ranging from the night shift at the factory to gamboling orcas, yet it worked, even apart from its full composition. No harm no foul and bonus points.

The remaining program included more Beethoven, both back to Opus 130 and Opus 18, No. 6 from a quarter century earlier, in case we had any misconceptions that this type of syncopation and stranger rhythms — shift changes with one very rough gearbox — was something new. And in the Beethoven and the Muhly that followed, you were reminded just how hard the scrapes and creaks of bow on string can be. It is always at the edge of smooth clarity and cracking voids.

Performers like those in Chiara are uninhibited in demonstrating that roughness. And while it can seem almost forced when abstracted in a recording or a large hall, the intimate theater brings you into the orbit of the producer of the sound — these sounds are just another hammer in the toolbox. They didn’t glory in, or prioritize the off sounds. Cellist Lori Goldston did this wonderfully since her days opening for Nirvana. But it’s there: as contemporary musicians they are in a contemporary world of sound.

The two "sets" included more Muhly and another new work by Huang Ruo, "Calligraffiti," expressly written for the quartet.

The music stayed informal, changeable, and likeable even when it was tragic or hard-edged. These players are very effective in transmitting feelings of sorrow, from Beethoven to Ott and beyond. Yet what a happy story surrounds these sad songs. Showing up in a club is only the small part of the programming energy and innovation of the group. For example, in Chiara’s Creator/Curator series, for which Ott has put together both his new quartet and curated it with Lutosawksi’s String Quartet; that's coming up at the Galapagos space in Brooklyn in March.

Chamber music isn’t for the meek.  Outside the one-story building at the southwest corner of Madison and 14th, this is still an "unfinished" corner of the city, though changing fast. Great things are coming: the Bullitt Foundation's new home is aiming to be carbon neutral if not literally making the earth a better place.

Yet it isn’t just the drive-through banks nearby; it's also the one-story bars and venues, dives or art spaces, that often, though by no means all the time, offer opportunities for the type of cultural juxtapositions that make cities memorable. Memo to file: Chiara Quartet for urban development? Research.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ray Gastil

Ray Gastil

Ray Gastil is a planner and urban designer whose most recent publication is Success Looks Different Now: Design and Cultural Vitality in Lower Manhattan (Architectural League, 2013). He has served as the 2011-2013Chair in Design Innovation/Visiting Professsor at Penn State, and is a former city planning director in Manhattan and Seattle.