turtle island string quartet

Chamber music crossovers: Anti-Genrefication activists

Ensembles win broader audiences by embracing wider range of music

“Crossover” is a dirty word in classical music. To some old-guardians, the c-word implies some kind of sell out or dilution of the purity of great music. Although many of us are still willing to pay a considerable sum to sit quietly and watch a few musicians play music from previous centuries (music now easily available at home with a click) on a stage for a couple hours, chamber music presenters and performers are increasingly enhancing/diluting (depending on your point of view) the “classic” chamber music experience with other kinds of music and even non musical elements — theater, visual art, video, and more.

Chamber Music Northwest and/or Portland5 (the city’s performing arts center) this year have brought Black Violin (classical meets hip hop), Frye Street Quartet (classical meets climate change), 2Cellos (classical meets hair gel), Igudesman & Joo (classical meets comedy) to town. Local musicians like Darrell Grant, Portland Cello Project and ARCO-PDX cross classical with jazz, pop, and rock-show presentation, respectively.

The Dali Quartet performed at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music's Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

The Dali Quartet performed at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music’s Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

Friends of Chamber Music started its Not So Classic series in the 1999-2000 season because “we felt there were no many chamber ensembles out there that didn’t fit into the traditional string quartet/piano trio programming on our Classic Series,” executive director Pat Zagelow told ArtsWatch via email. “And since our Classic Series has a strong subscriber base and people are quite happy with that programming as it is, rather than change that around or just add to it, we started a separate series that would allow us to offer some different instrumentation and/or different chamber music programming … [from] contemporary groups like eighth blackbird, Kronos Quartet and So Percussion to jazz-influenced groups like Turtle Island String Quartet to unusual quartets like the Rastrelli Cello Quartet and Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, eclectic instrumentation like Quartetto Gelato, and groups that take ‘traditional’ chamber music and shake it up, like Red Priest, or groups that focus on non-traditional repertoire, like the Dali Quartet and their Latin-American program.”

Though the series started at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, “we really think these concerts are better experienced in a more intimate setting, which is what has drawn us to [downtown Portland’s 300-seat] The Old Church recently,” Zagelow explains. “The recent renovation with wood flooring on the stage and better lighting and sound makes it an even better option.”

As hoped, “the audience for Not So Classic concerts is younger and more diverse than for our Classic Series,” Zagelow wrote. You can hear a recent crossover — between Chinese traditional and contemporary classical music — for the next couple weeks on Portland All Classical Radio’s Played in Oregon program, featuring the Shanghai Quartet and pipa virtuosa Wu Man playing music by Tan Dun and more.

Last month saw a flurry of crossover shows in Portland that mixed classical music — or at least “classical” instruments, and they leave me hopeful about the future of chamber music.

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