Festival Review: St. Lawrence String Quartet

Austin Chamber Music Festival: St. Lawrence String Quartet

This concert was a lesson in active listening from an active, assured, exceptional ensemble
By Robi Polgar, Austin Chronicle, July 21, 2017

What is “active listening”?

A lesson: As explained – nay, taught – by Geoff Nuttall, violinist and charismatic spokesman for the St. Lawrence String Quartet (a “democratic institution”), “You don’t need to know anything [about music] to be affected, but only if you’re listening.” So, before experiencing SLSQ’s Austin Chamber Music Festival program of string quartets by Joseph Haydn and R. Murray Schafer, Nuttall and his peers – Owen Dalby, violin; Lesley Robertson, viola; Christopher Costanza, cello – highlighted sections of what was to come and encouraged the house to chime in with a vocal, emotional response (grumbling, sighing, “grrr“s and “aah“s).

Under the microscope was Haydn’s “devastating” String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20 No. 5, one of a half-dozen quartets he wrote as Op. 20 which revolutionized the form. Haydn exploded the concept, personalizing the quartet, democratizing it, imbuing it with emotion and open expression – shocking for the time. He explored character and storytelling, adding the color of folk rhythms and melodies. And when the ensemble played the piece, there it was: the first movement’s sinister opening theme, followed by its sunnier complement (“grrr!” vs. “aah!”), two characters in conflict coming to a tense compromise. The second movement, a minuetto, a waltz, with breaths of silence among dainty and dramatic steps, a little air before the dance resumed. A love song next, an adagio, featuring moments of “butterfly improvisation” by Nuttall as Dalby assumed the melody line. Last, the fugue, a complex, follow-the-leader bit of brilliance flicked into motion by Robertson before pinging around the energetic quartet, a band that can’t sit still, such is their enthusiasm for the music. Call it “active performing.”

After intermission, Costanza introduced Schafer’s masterful Quartet No. 3. He began the first movement, a solo that evolved into a theatrical coming together of the quartet, the three other strings appearing out of (almost) thin air over the course of an ethereal piece of music. If Haydn liberated the string quartet, Schafer takes full advantage of this freedom, concocting a three-movement oeuvre that defies and delights. Droning strings and sliding shifts of notes; the performers adding yelps and shouts to a second movement that demands “maximum physical energy”; a final movement of strange tunings, rhythms, and buzzing, resolving to an ultimate peace. If George Harrison had heard this, he’d never have bothered to go to India.

The finale was Haydn’s second string quartet from Op. 20, in C major. Here was a ferocious start, with moments of respite, pitting the two violinists against the world. The selection brought more drama to an evening that had everyone on the edge of their seats, an active audience.

When commanded by the rapturous crowd for just one more selection, Nuttall held his score aloft and said, “We have the whole book of Opus 20,” and more than one in the house hoped the quartet would play every note. In the end, we had to settle for an encore of Quartet No. 1’s first movement, listening actively, delightedly, to a consummate quartet performing outstandingly good music.

Here endeth the lesson. Save for this:

When Austin Chamber Music Center Artistic Director Michelle Schumann introduced the quartet for this, its first appearance here, she noted how excited the group was because of its anticipated, as yet unconfirmed, return to town next summer. Apparently, a clause in the artist contract states that in the event of rain on the day of the performance, that artist or ensemble automatically gets asked back to the following year’s festival. Schumann delivered this news in a mock rueful tone, because everyone wants them back, because it did rain a little, somewhere (please), and because, if the SLSQ makes good on its desire to return, eager attendees have time to ensure they have tickets for the next lesson in active listening by this active, assured, exceptional ensemble.

Festival Overview: Austin Chronicle

Chargaux at the 2017 Austin Chamber Music Festival

This dynamic Brooklyn-based string duo proves that the Austin Chamber Music Festival has many more colors than its name suggests

By Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle, July 7, 2017

Tight shot of a violin and a viola – standard-issue instruments in every orchestra and string ensemble across the globe. Make whatever assumptions you choose about the music made with these instruments and the musicians who play them.

Now pan out to reveal the owners of these old-school music makers: two African-American women in their 20s, both with impeccably styled makeup and hair (which could be bright magenta or lemon, elaborate box braids or tight flapper curls) and chic outfits looking not just on trend but ahead of trend.

Keep panning out until we can see them in a metropolitan setting – possibly the Boston street corner where the two met by chance in 2010, or a Brooklyn subway where they spent four years honing their chops as a musical duo and finding their voice as composers – and see them surrounded by restless urbanites, stopped in their tracks to listen to the pair, to capture them in photos and on video, to ask them where their music can be purchased.

Now cue the music: violin and viola intertwining in dreamy melodic lines, repeated with synth underscoring and drum machine beats, spiced here with Eastern airs and there with hip-hop rhythms, and maybe some spoken lines or softly sung lyrics that add to the alluring, mesmerizing, and thoroughly fresh spell cast by their original compositions. Unless, that is, they’re covering, say, Kanye’s “FML” or Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Beyoncé’s “Partition” or Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” in which case their musical magic turns alchemical, transforming a song you knew into one that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before.

Pan out far enough and you’ll be able to see Kendrick Lamar, who included their strings in his hit “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”; fashion label Opening Ceremony, which featured the duo in one of its runway shows; J. Cole, who had the pair contribute vocals and string arrangements to his album 4 Your Eyez Only; and Michelle Obama, who brought them to the White House to perform for her Reach Higher initiative’s Fashion Education workshop.

That’s Chargaux – as in Jasmin “Charly” Charles and Margaux Whitney – the Brooklyn-based art collective that’s been defying expectations in the musical, fashion, and visual art worlds for the past seven years. Whatever preconceptions may have been prompted by seeing their instruments – I’m guessing stodgy old white dudes in tuxes, hopelessly mired in music of the 18th and 19th centuries – the fact is, classical music is a bigger, broader, even wilder world than we often imagine it to be. And the fact that Chargaux is a featured act at this year’s Austin Chamber Music Festival should also indicate that there’s more to a festival by that name than you might think.

Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center and festival director for the past decade, has always sought to fill the annual summer event with ensembles and programs that reveal the full spectrum of colors in what’s considered chamber music. While never one to ignore the traditional brand of chamber music that draws on the classical repertoire of the past – she’s brought to Austin such celebrated ensembles as the Emerson String Quartet, Jupiter String Quartet, Brentano String Quartet, and this year’s St. Lawrence String Quartet – she has supplemented the chamber music we might have expected with much that we might not have: the Turtle Island Quartet playing a tribute to John Coltrane, Raúl Jaurena & the Texas Tango Five playing a tribute to Astor Piazzolla, Tosca String Quartet playing a tribute to the Beat poets, chamber operas about Anne Frank and neurologist Oliver Sacks, badass jazz trio the Bad Plus, Third Coast Percussion, Texas songbird Kelly Willis, and Chamber Music Center students-turned-hot-band Mother Falcon. In that varied array, Chargaux represents another vivid hue.

And speaking of hues, it’s worth noting the role that color plays in the art of Chargaux. Violinist Charly has synesthesia, the perceptual condition in which some sensory impressions are associated with colors. As she explained it to an interviewer with the National Endowment for the Arts: “Color for me is an involuntary sense. It’s just as natural as taste, touch, and feel. When I hear music, or when I hear any sound, there’s an aura, or there’s a series of color, or there’s a pattern of color that comes with it.

“When I listen to Alice Coltrane, a lot of her music is red and orange – she has a lot of Easter colors. When I listen to Miles Davis, his music sounds very dark: black, brown, stripes of gold. When I listen to Jimi Hendrix, we see these psychedelic colors that everybody paints him with. I don’t see those colors, but I feel these raw reds and oranges. I feel these swells, these flowers. If you could imagine how a flower feels, that’s what his music sounds like to me. So it’s not just simply a color, it’s also a texture. There might be 30 different versions of yellow that I hear from something.”

Charly goes on to say that when she and Margaux make music, “all the songs we write have a palette, a simple palette that we pull from.” She sees the music of Chargaux as “really purple.” Now’s your chance to discover what colors you see in this duo’s music – and in the other ensembles in the 2017 Austin Chamber Music Festival. You may find more colors than you expect.

Chargaux performs Sun., July 9, 7:30 pm, at North Door, 501 Brushy.

Festival Overview: Austin American-Statesman

Austin Chamber Music Festival reveals stories in the songs

By Michael Barnes, Austin American-Statesman, July 5, 2017

The latest trend in chamber music — storytelling — might also be the most ancient cultural practice in human history.
Yet as Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center, sees it, a new-fashioned style of storytelling is the perfect complement to an intense, intimate and often misunderstood form of music.

“Audiences often crave more from a concert,” Schumann says about the narrative impulse as she expects it to play out during the upcoming Austin Chamber Music Festival. “They want to take away a deep understanding of the music, rather than just a sonic-emotional experience. They desire a personal connection with the artists and the art they are creating, a narrative that ties together different composers, eras, countries and styles. It gives audiences a context that they can relate to and therefore feel closer to.”

Traditionally, chamber group offerings have been organized around two main genres: string quartets and piano trios, the latter made up of a violin, a cello and a piano.

“In the past, concerts have generally followed a formula of sorts, not unlike symphony concerts,” Schumann says. “A typical program includes a piece from the classical era — Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven — combined with a piece from the Romantic era — late Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, Brahms — followed by an early- to mid-20th-century work — say Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartok. Groups sometimes also like to include a more adventurous or new work, maybe commissioned for them.”

The unspoken theme for these concerts: “These are three pieces that we like a lot … and you should, too.”

“Not to take away from the marvel of a string quartet concert by Mozart, Schubert or Debussy, but organizers are fanatics about developing audiences, not only in size, but in depth and commitment,” Schumann says. “Presenting concerts that have a narrative thread or storytelling aspect to them provides a ‘hook’ to interest the audience, and then the chance to reinforce the profound nature of connection that chamber music can allow.”

She shares some examples from the upcoming festival.

• The St. Lawrence String Quartet will lead what it calls a “Haydn Discovery.” First violinist Geoff Nuttall, often referred to as the Jon Stewart of chamber music, will give an insider’s tour of the Haydn Quartet Op. 20, No. 5. Together with the quartet, he will guide the audience through the surprises, inside musical jokes, dramatic impulses, unusual techniques and special phrasing choices to engage them as active listeners.

• The Daedalus Quartet has put together a program called “Kreutzer Sonata,” after Leo Tolstoy’s novella. Together with an actor who depicts Tolstoy’s wife, the quartet weaves in the works of Janacek (the “Kreutzer Sonata” String Quartet), Tchaikovsky, Taneyev and Beethoven (his Sonata for Violin and Piano dubbed the “Kreutzer Sonata,” arranged for String Quintet), combined with the writings of Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s novella was scandalous when first published — and immediately banned.

• The Lavuta Project, with violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz, presents a modern Gypsy program that combines the virtuoso Franck Sonata for violin and piano with freshly arranged, composed and improvised Gypsy folk tunes from the Balkans, the Middle East, Israel and Eastern Europe, “as well as and our own American Folk Gypsy, George Gershwin.”

• Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s program, “Miniatures from the Americas,” features 10 short pieces from North, Central and South America. Many of them were written for the group, and its personal connection with the composers drive the interpretations.

• The Center’s self-produced programs feature more of these extra-musical narratives: “Animated Shorts” pairs films with live chamber music, and in another concert, scenes from “Romeo and Juliet” will be combined with chamber music by composers from different eras — Faure, Bartok, Piazzolla, Beethoven, Schubert, Shostakovich — chosen to extend and deepen Shakespeare’s emotional depiction.

Some traditional audiences resist this trend. They believe that the music can stand on its own.

“New audiences, however, love this change,” Schumann says. “They are captivated by the concept of contextualizing music and feel thrilled and intrigued to learn something new with an innovative connection.”

Part of this has to do with the state of music education, she points out, even the state of the humanities in general. Older, more experienced audiences know a lot about the music and the composers, as well as the historical and political context. They already feel connected. Younger and newer audiences don’t necessarily come to the music with this advantage.

Even without these dissonances, Schumann and her colleagues deal with all sorts of misperceptions about chamber music.

“That it’s stuffy, elite, unapproachable and inaccessible,” she says. “Frankly, the worst part is that the name — chamber music — is immediately a term that needs defining. Ugh. What a (expletive) and constant uphill battle.”

She prefers to see it as the original house party music.

“Friends getting together to play with and for other friends, drink wine, tell stories, (complain) about politics, and then, more music,” she says. “Composers saved their most personal, intimate communication for this genre because they knew the performances would always be for their closest friends.”

Austin Chamber Music Festival

July 7: Festival Chamber Orchestra

July 8: St. Lawrence String Quartet

July 9: Chargaux

July 14: Animated Shorts

July 15: Romeo & Juliet

July 16: The Lavuta Project

July 21: Daedalus Quartet

July 22: Cuban Finale

July 23: Cuarteto Latinoamericano

Blue Bash Review: Austin 360

Enraptured by chamber music at the Blue Bash

By Michael Barnes, Austin 360, June 12, 2017

Listen closer.

Chamber music demands it. You will be rewarded beyond measure.

I’ve been away from live chamber music for a while. I’m back. Never going away again.

The Blue Bash, which benefits the estimable Austin Chamber Music Center, took place this year at the Renaissance Austin Hotel. Not in the ballroom, but rather the smaller space with a forest view and high, arched ceilings. A little tinny for chat over dinner, but well suited for quiet music.

About 150 enraptured guests gathered to hear Michelle Schumann, the center’s artistic director and an immaculate pianist, play the arboreal “Walderauschen” by Franz Liszt. She was joined by gifted clarinetist Håkan Rosengren for a dynamic “Fantasiestucke” by Robert Schumann.

After Robert Duke, the brainy University of Texas music professor from “Two Guys on Your Head” NPR radio show, spoke about the real merits of music eduction — hint: it doesn’t improve your academics as is so often claimed — Schumann and Rosengren were joined by a young clarinetist, Julius Calvert, whom the center has groomed and is headed to Indiana University. They played the frolicking Concert Piece No. 1 for Two Clarinets by Felix Mendelssohn.

It could not have been more gratifying.

I was surprised that more was not said from the stage about the upcoming Austin Chamber Music Festival, but I suppose everybody in the room already knows about it and plans to attend.

In that case, I thank the center folks for not overselling it. How many hours have been chewed up at Austin benefits explaining again and again what a nonprofit does to people mostly already in the know.