When I was in high school, I took the Metro-North into New York City every weekend to study classical music. Those weekends I would often end up hanging out with friends in Greenwich Village, and I soon discovered the fading--but still vibrant--jazz scene in places like the Village Vanguard and Smalls. It was more than just my first experience of live jazz, it was also my first time hearing music in a small crowded club. It was so different from listening to performances in concert halls. Everyone in the room was in on the energy of creating the music. The performers fed on that energy and sent even more back--a beautiful cycle. I knew how important concert halls were--how reverential, how respectful of the performer. But this more intimate format also respected the listener, it said that everyone ought to be comfortable, that we were all going to share.
At that time I hatched an idea. I was already obsessed with classical chamber music (the music written for small groups without conductor, the classical equivalent of the jazz combo). I knew that the music was so good it could be loved by anyone, given the right experience. And I started thinking that maybe the concert hall was not the only way to share this music. Why not open up a club for chamber music? It would be great. Seedy, dive-y, smelling like old beer, and from the stage: Bartok?
I never followed through with my original plan. But a few years ago, my group, the Chiara Quartet, was searching for ways to be more true to ourselves. We were playing regular concerts and doing "outreach" to bring our music to people who didn't know about it. The goal of the outreach was always supposed to be the same: get people to show up to concerts. And it worked only rarely. I started to remember my old idea. People just wanted to be comfortable. If they could listen on their terms, they would recognize what's good. And so we stopped dividing our playing into performance and outreach. And we started playing string quartet concerts in clubs as well as concert halls. We never rejected the concert hall--for serious listening it has unmatched advantages--but we embraced the trade-offs of playing in clubs as well: more cozy, more noisy, more spontaneous.
While all of this was going on with us, there were people (classically-trained musicians!), working on that original dream of mine. It was only a matter of time, I guess. (Le) Poisson Rouge, the club on Bleecker Street at the location of the old Village Gate jazz club, is now serving "art and alcohol." It has become a major listening room for a huge assortment of music, including classical. I never would have had the stomach to open a chamber music bar in NYC, but I am so glad to be able to play at one.
The Chiaras are having our first-ever show at (L)PR on Wednesday, April 28. We're psyched. It's a great program, anchored by Steve Reich's Different Trains. Already a late-20th century classic, this piece redefines the string quartet by having us shadow the spoken word. The melodic seeds of the music are the voices of Holocaust survivors and train engineers. I'm still amazed, when we play this piece, by how right he got it. The effects are cool, but the piece is also really good. We're doing Jefferson Friedman's String Quartet No. 2, classical in form, inspired by post-punk bands and written for us. We feel it's bound to become a classic, too. And, to kick it old-school, the Webern Five Movements for String Quartet, which packs more music into less space than anything else I can think of. It turned 100 last year (but it just may be the most radical thing on the program).
Three pieces that redefined how a quartet should sound, in a space that is helping to redefine where a quartet should sound.
The Chiara String Quartet performs at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Wednesday, April 28, at 7:30pm. The concert will be recorded for webcast as part of Q2’s Live from (Le) Poisson Rouge series. For more information, click here!