Looking at the future of classical music with the Jasper String Quartet

The Jasper String Quartet had an eventful week in Portland./Photo: Jim Leisy courtesy of Chamber Music Northwest

My guess is that Western classical music won’t simply vanish from the culture, at least not anytime soon, though the space it occupies continues to shrink and its place in the culture becomes increasingly peripheral. I know some doomsayers believe it will, based on those same trends.

But I believe classical music — or rather the musicians who love and play it — is more adaptable than that. Last week, for example, as the Jasper String Quartet launched into the  Adagio movement of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor, which I wrote about last week, I immediately located it: the movie “Platoon”! And it’s popular in soundtracks of various kinds. How can classical music die if it keeps showing up on “The Simpsons”?

The four young Jasper musicians — J and Rachel Henderson Freivogel, Sae Chonabayashi and Sam Quintal — also give me hope for the future, because I think they understand how important it’s going to be for them to educate new audiences, who don’t necessarily have the same rich history with classical music as they themselves do, and advocate for the continuing relevance of the music, whether it’s by Beethoven, Barber or Aaron Jay Kernis.

[box border=”full”]Editor’s Note: This story appeared originally on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts & Life page.[/box]

After they played  on Oct. 30 at Kaul Auditorium for Chamber Music Northwest, the Jaspers got a little good news: They had won the  Cleveland Quartet Award, given to promising ensembles every couple of years. It’s prestigious — previous winners have included the Brentano, Borromeo, Miro and Jupiter string quartets. But it’s also practical because it funds eight performances around the country, including one in Carnegie Hall. And one more thing: “It’s a recognition of all the work that we’ve done; it’s not a competition,” J Freivogel pointed out.

When I met with them the day they found out, the Jaspers were beaming, not that this was the only award they’ve ever won. For a young quartet, they are well-decorated and have been singled out by important career enhancers, such as Astral Artists (which supports young musicians) and Barratt Vantage Artists (a commercial management firm that specializes in innovative musicians). They were also happy about the reception they’d received the night before at Kaul Auditorium: “We’re very honored to lay for an audience like that,” Chonabayashi said.

Mostly, though, we talked about Kernis. The Jaspers have recorded one of his two quartets (the second (“musica instrumentalis”), which they paired with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, and played the other one, “musica celestis,” at Kaul. They’ve also commissioned a third one from Kernis, whom they’ve gotten to know well. And their relationship with him symbolizes one of the reasons that I’m hopeful about the adaptability of classical music: Young musicians today understand that inhabiting the traditional classical music canon simply isn’t sufficient — either for them as musicians or for their audiences.

“It’s (Kernis’s music) is where we have a connection, when we really feel we are one ensemble,” Chonabayashi said. And Quintal added, “You can feel it in the audience, the audience is with us.”

What is it specifically about Kernis? Rachel Henderson Freivogel listed three elements: 1) Kernis has complexity, but not for complexity’s sake; 2) he has heartfelt emotion, but he’s not sappy; 3) he writes from the classical music tradition, but he’s not Neo-Romantic.  So, the String Quartet No. 1 the group played at Kaul had direct connections to Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” (which was also on the program and will be on their upcoming CD) and Haydn, which Quintal pointed out to the Kaul audience during a little lecture-demo before they played the piece, and beautiful melodies, but it digs into some pulsing rhythmic sections, too, and in the third section, Kernis actually calls for “ancora funk,” more funk, in the score.

I spent a morning listening to Kernis pieces, and discovered that the Grant Park Orchestra, led by Carlos Kalmar, the music director of the Oregon Symphony, had recorded several of his works. So, I emailed the maestro to ask him about Kernis.

“I like Aaron’s music a lot,” Kalmar wrote back. “He is a very skilled, intense musician, who has  a lot of variety and depth in things he writes. On one side there is this meaningful musician, who writes pieces like the “Drawn Sky” or the Musica Celestis, or a “Sarabande in memorian”, which I recorded. That is music with a lot of meaning, background and depth; it requires a lot of attention from us all. On the other side there is the “fun Aaron,” with the wonderful sense of rhythm and humor.”

And what about how the Jaspers played “musica celestis”?  “Loved the Kernis,” Kalmar answered. “I know the Musica Celestis quite well, because there is a string orchestra version of it, and I have conducted that one. It is a bit “easier” to play for an orchestra, because it allows a group of musician to float the sound, which is difficult for a quartet to do. I liked the performance of the Jasper. Very talented musicians. Only criticism from my side is that the program was too long. But they showed great skills, good musicality and a wonderful sense of ensemble. Bravo!!”

The Jasper String Quartet has decided to focus a lot on Kernis, to champion his work. “We are as excited by the music of Kernis as by Beethoven,” J Freivogel said, and he knew what he was saying. “That’s the Holy Grail of music.” And later he said, “There’s a reason we know Beethoven and Haydn. They were the exceptional ones. That’s how we feel about Kernis. It’s important for the progression of the culture.”

I think that’s exactly right, and if it’s true, then the approach that the Jasper String Quartet brings to its interaction with audiences will be crucial toward making the point. At Kaul, remember, they paused before the Kernis quartet to explain to us what we were about to hear, point out the themes, give us a little road map through a complex and most likely unfamiliar work. As I looked around the audience during the piece, I could see a different level of absorption in the faces of the listeners than I had for the Barber at the start of the concert.

The next day, before I sat down with them, I listened in to a little lecture-demonstration the quartet gave at Portland State University, where they were spreading the word on Kernis to students and faculty as well as some Chamber Music Northwest patrons. They played the first movement of String Quartet No. 1 and pointed out that the layering resembled Bartok’s and that the texture and lyricism of the Kernis resembled Schubert in “Death and the Maiden.” And they talked a little about Kernis, how he taught at Yale but made his living as a composer, though he wrote only three or four pieces a year.

Because I was sitting next to a contingent from Chamber Music Northwest, which sponsored the PSU event, too, I learned that the venerable summer festival had commissioned a new Kernis woodwind quintet, which will show up in next summer’s line-up. Suddenly, I felt happily awash in Kernis, and if you aren’t familiar with his music, it might be time to dial him up.

Why are the Jaspers so intent on reaching out to audiences in various ways? It’s pretty simple, actually, or maybe pretty complicated. “If it takes us weeks or months to get inside a piece…,” Chonabayashi started and then she shifted tracks: “The main people are not the artists, it’s the audience. They are there for a special experience.”

The Jasper String Quartet is dedicated to those special experiences, and they understand that providing them goes beyond four great musicians onstage playing the music. It takes a little more than — a little more knowledge passed along to he audience, a little more visible concern and passion for the music from the musicians.

They aren’t alone in this. The music community here is deeply interested in creating rich experiences around classical music, too, invading alternative spaces for concerts, showing up alongside indie rock bands, experimenting with various sorts of presentation.

As pianist Marie Choban said in an Oregon ArtsWatch podcast recently, Portland is looking more and more like it will be a leader in the effort to keep classical music alive and kicking. Maybe with an assist from groups like the Jasper String Quartet.

2 Responses.

  1. Diane Wolff says:

    Classical music takes more work from the audience — but oh the rewards! The work it takes to perform it drives you into deeper understanding… seems like the works I love most are the ones I’ve sung or played.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks for visiting, Diane, and I think you’re exactly right. Any real satisfaction comes from a little work, performing or close listening. What I like about the Jaspers is that they understand that a little help goes a long way…

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