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Café Concert: International Contemporary Ensemble

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Concert audiences tend to associate Igor Stravinsky mostly with the large, loud or flamboyant – the primal and audacious Rite of Spring, the scintillating Firebird Suite, even the dry and aphoristic Pulcinella. His periodic forays into chamber music, on the other hand, have a more checkered history. And when it comes to his slender output of string quartets? Fuggedaboutit, say detractors.

But members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) think otherwise. The new-music group arrived in the WQXR Café to present two of Stravinsky’s works for string quartet including an arrangement of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier. It’s a piece that sounds so lush and romantic that it scarcely resembles Bach at all.

"Because it was transcribed by Stravinsky we felt a little freer to just be ourselves,” said first violinist David Bowlin. “You have to mimic a piano in the way you play it,” added Erik Carlson, the group’s second violinist (also in the ensemble were violist Maiya Papach and cellist Katinka Kleijn). 

ICE is performing two Stravinsky-filled programs this month as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. Stravinsky is a long way from Mozart both chronologically and stylistically, of course, yet both composers shared certain values: a Classical clarity and economy, as well as a cheeky sense of humor. Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, from 1914, also bears the stamp of folk music, an ingredient that periodically surfaces in Mozart.

“We were thinking, this is not classical music,” said Bowlin of the quartet’s approach. “This is rustic folk music – maybe Eastern European folk music – so a very different sound. So we didn’t conceive of the phrasing in a classical way at all. We thought it should be free and almost improvised sounding.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Wayne Shulmister; Text: Brian Wise