Turtle Island Quartet has had a long and awesome career. The group was founded in 1985 (ahem — the year that two Chicago Q members were born — and BEFORE their newest member, Jeremy Kittel, was even conceived). In my mind, they’re giants and pioneers of crossover. They blur the boundaries between classical, rock, folk, and world music; they play original compositions and arrangements; and if last night at Millennium Park was any indication, people absolutely love them. The performance was part of the awesome, FREE Chicago series Dusk Variations. Let us give thanks for the arts money, and programming savvy, which somehow still exists in our city after all the shakeups this year.
My friend — fiddler, singer and songwriter Kellen Zakula — introduced me to some of Turtle Island’s players during our summer together in Aspen. Kellen was a huge fan of founding member Darol Anger and newest member Jeremy Kittel. (Kittel, who has built a MAJOR fiddle career as a violinist, plays viola in Turtle Island. Which gives you an idea how great the other fiddlers in the group are.)
So there we are at the concert: me, my husband Tyler, and our rock guitarist friend Jamie. We’re picnicking at Millennium Park; the weather is armpit-like, but we’re still happy. We’re drinking some wine, eating some snacks. The announcer introduces the group. Here they come! The rock-and-rollers of the string quartet! The crowd is excited! What will they do first!?!
… (cue three solid minutes of music-shuffling; no one speaks to the audience)
GAH! I squirmed on my picnic blanket. In part because, well — isn’t this what MOST of us do when we get onstage with our quartets? Scoot our chairs and stands, open our binders, clothespin music to the stands, and pray? But it is so un-rock star. It is so un-audience friendly. It is awkward! We need to not do this. Chicago Q often aspires to strut onstage, bow, grin, plop down in our chairs and start rocking. The reality is sometimes quite different.
Thus began my series of mental notes about their quartet technique. Because I’m not a proper concert reviewer; I’m a quartet player and a nerd. Thus, we must shop talk:
1. Wow — the viola really IS at an acoustical disadvantage. Seated on the outside, Kittel’s f-holes were faced pretty much away from the audience, though amplification of course helped, and Kittel turned out a couple of times. I was reminded of a recent facebook comment, in which someone had recently seen the Tokyo Quartet and felt they were watching “air viola.” We’ve been experimenting with a more ‘open-faced’ seating arrangement, in hopes that Aimee’s fantastic playing will be better heard!
2. Mark Summer, their cellist, sits in the traditional 2nd violin spot! There are lots of reasons they might do this. Perhaps Summer and first violinist David Balakrishnan, who are both founding members, like being close to each other and laying down the groove. Perhaps this allows for helpful diagonal visuals: cello-viola, violin-violin.
3. The quartet remains fairly still while they play. They SOUND like rock stars for sure, but they don’t always project a rock star intensity. Perhaps this is part of why Eric Edberg found the group to be less inspiring than he’d hoped. At the Chicago show, they really did look like they were having fun. Another confusing lesson for me, the quartet member who is often “moving around a lot.”
Notable quotes from the quartet’s banter:
Balakrishnan: And now, we will perform Mozart’s String Quartet, no. 40 … … just kidding. (I booed this.)
Kittel: As you see, we’ve ditched the music stands! And we’re going to let loose a little bit here. But our shirts are still tucked in, so don’t get too excited. (It’s true — their shirts WERE all tucked in.)
First photo by Jay Blakesberg.