Chiara: A quartet in four weeks

by Simon de Carvalho '14

The string quartet is one of the icons of classical music. With just two violins, a viola and cello, composers have been creating immensely powerful works of music that have transcended the small size of the ensemble for hundreds of years. One of the most talented groups practicing this storied genre is the Chiara String Quartet, the current Blodgett Artists-in-Residence at Harvard.

Two weeks ago, the quartet arrived at Harvard for one of its four weeks on campus. In addition to the classes the quartet members worked with and talks they gave, they performed a culminating concert at Sanders Theatre on November 16, during which they played Mozart’s String Quartet in G Major, K 387, Schubert’s renowned Cello Quintet in C Major, Op. 163 and the world premiere of Behind the Light by Harvard's own Hans Tutschku. Tutschku's is a modern piece that incorporates electronic elements and stood in stark contrast to the other two pieces.

The Quartet comprises Rebecca Fischer on first violin, Julie Hye-Yung Yoon on second violin, Jonah Sirota on viola and Gregory Beaver on cello. I spoke with Julie and Greg about the Blodgett Residency, their time at Harvard (including a workshop in Richard Beaudoin's Music 2, a class the Harvard Arts Beat has covered before), and their Sanders performance.

1. Can you talk about your experience with the Blodgett Residency?

Greg: The Blodgett Residency is not a full-time residency in the sense that we are only at Harvard for a week at a time, four weeks per year. We arrive on Sunday, pack in several activities during each stay and perform in our own public concert. Most of our interaction with students is in classes centered around the study of music: its history, theory, composing and so on. There are some performance classes for non-majors, and we have regularly coached master classes of chamber music, and have taught a few lessons, although not as many as we would like. Harvard students are busy!

Our favorite part of the residency is getting to work with brilliant students and professors. We have enjoyed bringing an outsider perspective to Harvard, one that values the wisdom of the right brain’s wordless expression as much as it values intellect and analysis. We have also truly enjoyed getting a chance to stay in Cambridge and sample all the local restaurants; this is a wonderful perk of the residency!

2. I really enjoyed seeing you perform in our Music 2 class—can you talk a little bit about the experience of doing a workshop like that?

Greg: Prof. Beaudoin could have used a CD recording [of the Mozart quartet], but by having us present, we are able to play smaller sections of the piece (just second violin and viola, for instance), and also to answer questions and even perform segments of the movement with different musical interpretations. We have played for several of Prof. Beaudoin’s classes, and he is a great master of analyzing a piece of music, being a composer himself. He always brings the piece to life with his analysis, instilling wonder at the brilliance of the composer’s work inside the piece.

3. How do you approach music from the perspective of tonal analysis?

Julie: The process of discussing interpretation possibilities and trying to make sense of what the specific composer wrote on the page makes us analyze tonal structure and form whether we realize it or not. Sometimes the basic structure is very simple, and we could spend time discussing the finer details of the music. Other times when the composer is intentionally trying to break away from the norm by blurring the structure, we have to discuss. What usually happens is that we find ourselves playing things really differently and get really frustrated with each other. We finally realize that our understanding of the structure was way off and are able to play like a team again after getting on the same page.

4. At Sanders, there was a huge contrast between the pieces you played—the very traditional Mozart, the very exciting and bold Schubert, and then the Tutschku. How did you choose these pieces and why did you choose to put them together?

Julie: We knew we wanted to program the Schubert and Tutschku, and Mozart seemed to be a nice balance to the two pieces. Putting together programs is like cooking great meals with a set of ingredients. The pieces need to complement each other while bringing out different flavors. They need to balance each other and be varied at the same time. We tend to gravitate towards emotionally intense pieces as a group. It took some time to figure out how to cook up challenging and interesting programs that are not too rich and intense in flavor.

5. As far as the Tutschku piece, it is clearly very strange. Can you talk about your experience with playing something like that, especially as classically trained musicians?

Julie: I remember trying to tackle the 5th String Quartet of Bartok as a sophomore at the Juilliard School. After banging heads against walls (figuratively speaking) and not being able to figure out how to play in complex meters, my student group decided to move on to another piece. When I joined the quartet, I found out that all of us, in separate student quartets, attempted to learn Bartok's 5th String Quartet and failed. We haven't learned it yet (hopefully we will soon) but have played many modern and contemporary pieces with complex languages since our school days. Hans Tutschku's language is also complex and hard to comprehend when listening for the first time. The piece, however, is quite beautiful and simple in its overarching form, and we appreciated these qualities more and more as we were getting to know it better.

6. Last, what are you personal favorite pieces, either to play or listen to? And what are your favorite contemporary songs/artists to listen to?

Julie: There are so many, but today I was listening to Keith Jarrett's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations and Bartok's Contrast with Benny Goodman on clarinet, Joseph Szigeti on violin, and Bartok at the piano. Yesterday, I was listening to a bit of Fugazi's newly released live concert recordings.

[Caption: The Chiara Quartet: (left to right) Jonah Sirota, Rebecca Fischer, Julie Hye-Yung Yoon and Gregory Beaver (photo by Liz Linder)]