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The middle leg of the Chiara String Quartet’s three day residency as part of the fifth annual September Prelude Chamber Music Festival of the Triangletook place at the quaint and comfy Nelson Music Room on Duke University's East Campus. After a full day of master classes and coaching, and a difficult program the evening before, the Chiara Quartet delivered a phenomenal program full of energy, passion and many surprises. This particular performance was presented by Duke Performances and the Chamber Arts Society of Durham although, as Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald told the audience, this would not be possible without the extraordinary efforts of Nancy Lambert, executive director of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.
Arriving early, as is my usual practice, I entered familiar grounds with a completely different setup. At the request of the guest artists, the Nelson Music Room was transformed to an "in the round" chamber that gave it a living room ambience. The players were seated facing each other in the center of the room with the audience surrounding them on all sides – including what is normally the stage. It was interesting to watch people's reactions as they entered the hall. I chose a seat directly behind the cellist which proved to be an unusual but personally beneficial vantage point to concentrate on Gregory Beaver's bow arm and tone production.
This concert was listed in the program as "Mozart, Prokofiev, Bartok & Others" but it was the "others" that perhaps elicited the greatest response – and also inspired some brisk CD sales during intermission. The concert was framed by two of Mozart's string quartets from his set of six dedicated to Haydn, and it began with the third. Because of the configuration, everyone was behind one of the players so there was some concern about the balance and sound. This was quickly dispelled as we were awash with the most lush, distinct and naturally reverberant sound that I have ever heard in person. You actually felt the sound, especially the cello with the sound traveling down the endpin into the floor and back up into your seat. When the first movement ended and applause erupted from the balcony, many of the chamber music police became noticeably offended at this unwritten faux pas. Violist Jonah Sirota, sensing this silly cultural divide, stood up and told the audience to feel free to applaud whenever the spirit strikes you.
After the brilliantly played Mozart quartet was finished, the Chiara Quartet shattered another senseless tradition of chamber music concerts: the apparent prohibition on playing just selected movements of a larger work (not counting encores). They repeated from the night before the exhilarating ride of the second movement of Prokofiev's first string quartet and later on they contrasted that with the first movement of Bartók's second quartet. Being so close and familiar with the exceptional difficulty of these works, it was a marvel to experience the maturity, grace and phenomenal technique of these young musicians.
Respecting the past but exploring new paths and composers and avoiding the "museum" effect of chamber music should be a goal of musicians everywhere. During this concert the Chiara Quartet introduced me to a young composer named Jefferson Friedman (b.1974) who has written two string quartets for them. They completely transfigured the audience with their playing of the slow movement of Friedman's second quartet. This is an exemplar of new music that can still be unabashedly tonal and emotional, yet completely new and unexpected. Look for more from this composer. Another lovely miniature was Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout by Peruvian composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Its imitation of indigenous panpipes and the folk music of that culture was authentic and appealing.
After a first half of nearly one and a quarter hours of playing time, the Chiara Quartet took a lengthy respite before returning for the final work: Mozart's so-called "Dissonant Quartet." This name comes from the slow introduction to the first movement which, at least as compared to the harmonic vocabulary of that day, was comparable to chalk squeaking on a blackboard. Today, it's hardly noticeable.
There are conductors, even some in this area, who will have their orchestras play extremely difficult, busy and challenging works, but who balk at performing the mature Mozart symphonies. The deceptive simplicity and purity is precisely what makes Mozart so difficult to play well, but the Chiara String Quartet displayed the wisdom of the ages along with their self-assured technical brilliance in both of the Mozart quartets they performed. Especially impressive was their phrasing, patience, and beauty of tone in two very long andante movements that have the potential to be real snoozers.
Chiara is an Italian word meaning "clear, pure, or light," and it is an apt description of this quartet's musical footprint. In nearly four hours that I listened to them there was not one murky or unclear moment. Every musical idea was conveyed with clarity, sensitivity and the musical muscle to support their concept of the composition. They have a difficult tightrope to walk: balancing the great tradition of string quartet literature while also expanding the audience, culture and repertoire. They have already succeeded.