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Chiara String Quartet: Music by heart

The Chiara Quartet

Chiara String Quartet

If more musicians adopted the model of the Chiara String Quartet, then music stand companies would go out of business. Unlike many of their classical counterparts, Chiara – with violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver – play without sheet music, and as a result have memorized many, many hours of Bartok, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert. This approach has lead to a greater spontaneity and interaction, and has positioned Chiara String Quartet to become one of the most celebrated American string quartets today.

The group’s creative spirit has been a force on the Harvard campus for six years during which the ensemble has held the Blodgett Artists-in-Residency position. The term is up at the end of this year. They’ll be playing Bartok String Quartets Nos. 1, 3, and 5 at 8 p.m.  March 7 in Paine Hall. Another concert on April 11 will feature the Bartok cycle #2. Violinist Rebecca Fischer reflected on the experience of the residency and life at Harvard.

What has the last six years at Harvard been like?
We’ve gotten to wear so many different hats. In any given week, we’ll end up performing a number of times, playing at Harvard houses, being involved in lectures, reading student compositions and advising students on their work. And teaching. It’s been a wonderful blend of activities, and we’re very grateful to have this residency.

How has the collegiate classical world changed since you were in school?
I graduated [from Columbia] in 1998. With the globalization of everything, there’s more awareness and acceptance of other genres – more of an openness in accepting different styles and methods of performances. We play music by composers who are also keyboardists in a rock band or musicians equally adept at jazz. And that’s a good change. Every kind of good music informs every other kind of good music.

How did you decide on Bartok for this concert cycle?
Bartok has been a composer very close to our heart for a long time. There’s something about the intense rhythmic drives, the beautiful lyricism, and the fact that the parts are really completely equal. We are a very democratic ensemble – four very strong people and very strong voices – so this is a great match for us.

Can you talk about the process of memorizing all your music?
We spend hours and hours working to completely internalize the music. Once we do, we’re able to just play together. There’s nothing in the way. It’s probably the closest to improvisation that we get. It’s been immensely challenging to memorize Bartok though. When you’re memorizing, you’re looking for patterns and things that structurally make sense. Bartok’s music is written so immaculately, but because he is so clever, sometimes the patterns are deliberately not patterned. The challenge is getting inside Bartok’s head to figure out why he wrote every note.

What was your most memorable moment from your Harvard experience?
We sat in on Music 51b (intermediate theory) with Professor Beaudoin when the class was studying the 3rd movement of Debussy String Quartet. At the end of the class, Professor Bowdoin turned off the lights, and we played the piece in complete darkness. That was a real highlight. I don’t think we’ll ever forget that.

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