Playing by Heart

By: Edna Landau

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Early one morning, a few weeks ago, I was listening to radio station WQXR, when I heard the following:  “All of the artists you hear on WQXR play with heart, but not all of them play by heart.” It was the intro to an announcement of the Chiara String Quartet’s upcoming performance in WQXR’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space. The announcement really caught my attention. What was this all about? I have always thought of the Chiara as one of the most prominent and innovative quartets of their generation. Was this a gimmick to differentiate them from the pack?

Unable to attend the Quartet’s live performance, I made sure to view it via the link on WQXR’s home page. The audience was clearly energized by the excitement flowing from the group and responded with hearty and prolonged applause to their performances of works by Ravel and Brahms. During the interview portion, I learned how the Chiara arrived at the decision to perform most of their concerts and record their newest Brahms CD by memory. It resulted in large measure from an eight year process of recording the complete Brahms quartets, only to conclude that the product didn’t meet their own standards. In a quest to go deeper into the music and internalize what the composer wrote on the page, they invested the time in memorizing the music (individual parts and the totality) and began to rehearse by memory. Their new Brahms recording on the Azica label, which also includes the String Quintet No. 2 with violist Roger Tapping, is called “Brahms by Heart”.

The Chiara Quartet is not unique in playing by memory. The Kolisch Quartet, an early 20th century European ensemble, were renowned for playing by heart. Other quartets who have performed at times by memory include the Zehetmair Quartett , the Parker Quartet and the Ariel Quartet. However, the Chiara’s commitment to this idea seems considerably more far-reaching. I spoke to two members of the group: violinist Rebecca Fischer and violist Jonah Sirota. Still a bit skeptical about what WQXR referred to on their website as “a feat” and “scaling a very different artistic Everest”, I wanted to ask them directly about the motivation behind making a commitment that undoubtedly requires many extra hours of learning on their part. In calling their latest album “Brahms by Heart”, I couldn’t help but feel that they were playing on the novelty of this approach. They told me that the title had additional meaning for them because they feel it reflects the closeness they feel to the music as a result of having committed it to memory. I asked whether presenters were marketing them on the basis of this aspect of their performances and they said no. I also asked whether the number of works they have been performing  by memory (including Ravel, four Bartok quartets, Haydn Opus 20 #2, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”, and the complete Brahms) were an indication that all future performances would be by memory. I was especially curious about new music, in light of their Grammy nominated recording (2011) of Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet #3. They confirmed that their intention is to offer some new works by memory but explained that there is a tendency for newly commissioned works to be finished very close to deadline, which can create a challenge with regard to memorization. In addition, the decision to commit a new work to memory might be influenced by the number of opportunities to perform the work. Jonah and Rebecca told me that they will limit the amount of repertoire they offer by heart and that all four players must feel equally comfortable in all instances. At present, they seem almost euphoric about the sense of release and freedom that they feel when they are no longer tied to a printed page. They spoke of the galvanizing effect it has had on them, changing both their dynamic and their sound. They have also been gratified by the enthusiastic response from audiences who welcome the absence of music stands, which they view as a barrier between them and the musicians.

I am not in a position to comment on the before and after of the Chiara’s transformation. I have never been privileged to hear them live in concert and much of what is currently on YouTube is performed by memory. In these video clips, as well as in the broadcast from the Greene Space, the group plays with infectious ebullience, technical assurance, stylistic cohesion and a rich sound that emanate from a warm and confident dynamic between the players.  Recognizing that they have been Blodgett Artists-in-Residence at Harvard University over the past six years, I decided to contact a professor in Harvard’s Music Department, Anne Shreffler, who was happy to speak to me. She is very impressed with the artistic growth of the Quartet during their tenure at Harvard, independent of their new initiative to memorize their concert repertoire. However, she does believe that this new approach has enhanced their sound, their blend, and their artistic collaboration.

It is very common today for students at music schools and conservatories to be strongly encouraged to focus on their “vision statement” and “branding”.  I personally do not embrace that exact approach because I find it vague and overly corporate.  However, with such a crowded field of extraordinarily talented musicians and less opportunities for securing management and performance slots on established concert series, I do encourage young artists to try to identify their strongest skills and attributes, as well as their greatest passions, in hopes that this process will help to define them and allow them to build a profile that presenters, managers and the media might find compelling. At the same time, I always try to emphasize to them that this self-reflection process can only be productive if the level of their performances is as high as it can be. Recognition that is not rooted in significant musical accomplishment will not prove to be lasting. I commend the Chiara Quartet for identifying an approach that has elevated their performance level and brought audiences an extra measure of involvement and appreciation. I am not convinced that other ensembles are prevented from performing  with the same freedom and meaningful communication by having their music stands in front of them but I am convinced that the Chiara did not embark on this journey as a marketing ploy. While audiences may grow to speak about them as “the quartet who perform by heart”, thus helping them stand out among many gifted colleagues, I know they understand that it will always be the quality of their playing that truly defines them and that will be central to their ongoing success.

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© Edna Landau 2014

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