Whenever obituaries are written about the supposed death of classical music, there’s always a caveat: if someone — anyone — would figure out a new way to reach potential fans, then perhaps classical music would finally get off life support.
One solution that’s always mentioned is reaching new audiences with innovative approaches to live performance: the staid, tried-and-true classical presentations are not for everybody, so why not shake things up by bringing music to them in a way they can appreciate?
The members of the Chiara String Quartet are not just talking about this approach, they are actually doing it. Their upcoming appearance at Williamsburg’s Rose Live Music on Tuesday is a perfect example, since it is neither a typical club show nor a typical recital — and that’s how the quartet’s members want it.
“We’ve played for a lot of different audiences, which has always been important to us,” said the ensemble’s violist, Jonah Sirota, in an exclusive telephone interview with GO Brooklyn. “This is simply great music that speaks to people directly, no matter where it’s performed.”
The Chiara String Quartet was formed out of a friendship made about a dozen years ago, when violinist Rebecca Fisher and cellist Gregory Beaver met in a summer music camp while in high school. Sirota joined them a couple of years later, and violinist Julie Yoon became the quartet’s fourth member in 1999 when all four musicians were attending The Juilliard School.
Since then, the quartet has been mentored by the Juilliard Quartet, founded the Red River Chamber Music Festival — a summer study and performance festival in Grand Forks, N.D., and recently developed a music entrepreneurship program at the University of Nebraska’s School of Music in Lincoln, where the members are currently artists-in-residence.
Still, for all that, performing for enthusiastic audiences remains a passion for the group, and this past year saw the beginning of such branching out with the “Chamber Music in Any Chamber” initiative. (The quartet is also performing a classical concert at Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan on Jan. 11.)
“We play a lot of traditional concerts, and this past summer we went through a period of soul searching,” Sirota explains. “We realized we weren’t getting to the audiences we’d like to get to, which are those people around our own age. It was amazing the few times we’d done such performances, because the audience fed off our energy onstage and vice versa.
“So we decided it would be a great opportunity to perform in smaller venues [like Grand Street’s Rose Live Music], where we’re not up on the pedestal, so to speak, at a classical recital hall. And we won’t have to worry if the audience hasn’t been ‘trained’ in what to wear or when to clap, something that is unknown to club audiences.”
Among the transformations at the quartet’s club show is the evening’s program, which, in keeping with the type of concert it will be, is much looser and more free form than usual.
“We mix it up,” Sirota says. “It’s mostly a combination of stuff we play, including newer, more contemporary classical quartets. It will be a dramatic switch right from the start, going from Mozart to Gabriela Lena Frank [a Peruvian-Jewish composer whom the quartet’s members are currently championing with a new recording on their own CD label, New Voice Singles] to Bartok. We love to have such freedom in this setting, because audiences don’t come in with predetermined expectations like they do at a classical concert.”
Depending on the vibe the musicians are feeling from the audience they’re playing for, the evening’s works may be shuffled, rearranged or dropped entirely.
“We have a set list for these types of shows, but there is a flexibility for us while we’re out there playing,” the violist notes. “We don’t really have the freedom to do that in a classical concert.
“We’ll even throw the audience a bone and play a cover tune,” Sirota continues; when pressed for more details, he admits that it will be a Prince song.
“It’s a great feeling when you hear the audience get crazy,” he laughs. “Maybe one day they’ll do that when we play Beethoven!”
Sirota has his own take on the current debate over the would-be demise of classical music.
“Every once in awhile we hear that classical music’s dying, but that’s not true,” he asserts. “There are more concerts and more orchestras and more of an ability to hear this music [in live settings, on recordings, and online].
“But that flexibility hasn’t always been there,” he admits. “Since we always want to play challenging music, there has to be a drastic change away from the stuffiness and the class distinctions, which I think presenters and performers are finally realizing: since we started doing these shows earlier in the fall, other groups are doing them as well.”