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Blist'ring Strings

This summer, the Austin Chamber Music Festival really brings the heat

By Robert Faires, Fri., July 8, 2011

Kevin Torke
Kevin Torke

I'm not gonna lie to you. It's hot, and over the next few weeks, it's only going to get hotter. I know, I know, this is true every summer, but based on what I know, this July looks to be even hotter than most, and I just want you all to be prepared.

Oh wait, you probably think I'm talking about the weather.

Oh no no no no no. Please. Like I'd need to tell anyone in Austin that this time of year it's hot enough to fry an ostrich egg on the pasty shanks of a state legislator. No, I'm talking about our classical music scene, which, at the rate it's been heating up recently, is set to outpace global warming where rising mercury is concerned. I mean, last summer, our fair city hosted the Guitar Foundation of America's convention and international competition, for which the Austin Classical Guitar Society assembled a mind-melting week of concerts by both local virtuosos and classical guitar stars from across the globe. Then this spring, the temperatures started climbing early, what with visits from eighth blackbird, Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, and Itzhak Perlman (playing with the Austin Symphony Orchestra), and the debut of the new early music choir Ensemble VIII. And with the arrival of the summer solstice came word of Texas Performing Arts' $450,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help grow the classical music scene in Austin over the next three years. That's the equivalent of a nonstop run of triple-digit days from now through Labor Day 2014.

And now I'm here to tell you that the thermometer hasn't topped out yet. Starting Friday, July 8, a little high-pressure system is settling in over our classical music community and for 17 days will make this already sizzling scene so hot you'll be shoveling shaved ice into your ear canals. Trust me, though, this is the kind of heat you'll relish, like when you chomp on a habanero that makes your whole head sweat but also releases those sweet endorphins. In this case, the bringer of the heat is the Austin Chamber Music Festival.

Now, you may think you know this festival since it's had the month of July staked out on the cultural calendar for 15 years with little but the Zilker Summer Musical alongside it; you probably figure it for this modest little gathering of grave-faced instrumentalists soberly working over the Romantic repertoire – a little Beethoven, a little Mendelssohn, a soupçon of Schumann – in some midcentury modern church sanctuary. And there certainly has been some of that in the past, and there's some of that still (especially the playing-in-the-church sanctuary bit), but if you haven't experienced this festival in the past few summers, well, you haven't seen it gathering heat like a black car seat under a scorching Texas sun.

Since taking Austin Chamber Music Center reins in 2006, Artistic Director Michelle Schumann has fought to make chamber music as accessible and engaging as possible and to expand the sense of what the repertoire includes – a mission she's pursued as fervently with the festival as with ACMC's regular season concerts. The composers represented on festival programs now go far beyond the usual suspects (those dead white guys in powdered wigs) to include writers of the 20th and 21st centuries, some of whom happen to live in Austin. The last few festivals have seen the Turtle Island Quartet playing a tribute to John Coltrane, Raul Jaurena & the Texas Tango Five playing a tribute to Astor Piazzolla, and the Tosca String Quartet playing a tribute to the Beat poets. They've included chamber operas about Anne Frank and the neurologist Oliver Sacks and a live performance of the score to the 1915 film Der Golem. Festival artists have included badass jazz trio the Bad Plus and Lone Star songbird Kelly Willis, and they've broken out of the church circuit to play Bates Recital Hall, the Long Center, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. They've played the Continental Club, for Bach's sake! This isn't just the same old, same old violin-violin-viola-cello setup. However, when it comes to those traditional chamber ensembles, which are still the pumping heart and stirring soul of the festival, Schumann has consistently upped the festival's game: Jupiter String Quartet, Borromeo String Quartet, Brentano String Quartet – in other words, the ensembles that are established, that are the leaders, that inspire. All that is where the heat is coming from, and it isn't just the temperature that's gone up; it's also ticket sales – a 40% bump for this year's festival over last year's, according to Schumann. That's on top of a box-office-busting year in 2010, and it comes before the first note is played in 2011.

So what does Schumann have on tap this summer that will make the sweat pour off your brow? A major American composer, for starters. Michael Torke became the poster boy for post-minimalist music in the Eighties, but don't let that scare you. His compositions involve repetition, but they're also rhythmically buoyant and bright, even catchy – which frequently makes them feel like closer kin to pop music than classical. Critics like to describe his music with terms like "vibrant," "joyful," "thoroughly uplifting," and "irresistible," which may give you some idea why Schumann has programmed works by Torke in six of this year's festival concerts, with one of them an all-Torke program featuring student musicians alongside festival artists. The composer – whose 50th birthday this year makes for a nice bit of milestone anniversary alignment with the Chamber Music Center's 30th and the festival's 15th – will be in residence for the festival's final week to coach students, lead master classes in composition, and speak about his work before festival concerts.

But Torke's ebullient rhythms and presence are just the tip of the fireberg, if you will. Also turning up the flames are a pair of blistering classical guitarists, the Bandini-Chiacchiaretta Duo; a threesome of awesome Austrians playing Brahms and Beethoven, the Vienna Piano Trio; the divine unaccompanied voices of Anonymous 4; the funky five jazzmeisters of Kneebody; and hometown heroes the Miró Quartet. And to close out this year's festival? Well, string quartets don't come much grander than the Tokyo String Quartet. Additional details may be found at left, or you can drop in at www.austinchambermusic.org to see Schumann's video interviews with the 2011 Austin Chamber Music Festival artists.

Say, is that some sweat on your upper lip?

Miró Quartet With Tom Burritt

Friday, July 8, 7:30pm

Bates Recital Hall, 2420 Robert Dedman

The University of Texas' string quartet in residence may still be in transition mode following the departure of second violin Sandy Yamamoto, but don't think you can pass up this program – not with reprises of Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 5, an electrifying highlight of one of their 2010 concerts; Kevin Puts' Credo; and Torke's Mojave, a concerto for marimba to be played here by Butler School of Music percussion titan Thomas Burritt.

Anonymous 4

Saturday, July 9, 7:30pm

Bates Recital Hall

Michelle Schumann considers the work of this a cappella quartet "the ultimate chamber music" for its sense of ensemble and the seamless, seemingly effortless interplay of the voices. For this Austin visit, the four will draw from the catalog of medieval European music in which they specialize (Secret Voices: Music From Las Huelgas c. 1300) but also serve up more recent songs from our own land (Glory Land: Sacred Music From American Folk). If you want to imagine what a foursome of angels sounds like, be my guest. I'll simply listen to Anonymous 4.

Vienna Piano Trio

Michelle Schumann
Michelle Schumann

Sunday, July 10, 7:30pm

Bates Recital Hall

Handling trios by Beethoven and Brahms, these Austrians can be counted on to keep it lean and clean, though their interpretations are not without soul or power. Their balance and precision shed new light in corners of these works you thought you knew. Their program's biggest surprise, though, may be Torke's Telephone Book, which they'll play with local flutist Naomi Seidman and clarinetist Nathan Williams.

Kneebody

Friday, July 15, 7:30pm

Continental Club, 1315 S. Congress

When it comes to music, Kneebody doesn't mess around – although most of what the group does is mess around. Its five young musicians take their classical foundation and go racing through jazz, bop, pop, hip-hop, punk, and more jazz (pretty much any musical form they like), scattering conventions and blurring lines in improvisational blasts, albeit with impeccable care and craft. They'll jump on the Torke birthday bandwagon here, too, crafting a new variation on the composer's "July," originally written for a saxophone quartet.

Bandini-Chiacchiaretta Duo

Saturday, July 16, 4pm & 7:30pm

Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River

Tango 'til you drop with these masters of the bandoneón and guitar playing a full program music by Maximo Diego Pujol, Angel Villodo, Paulo Bellinatt, and – wait for it – Astor Piazzolla. Presented in collaboration with the Austin Classical Guitar Society.

Chiara String Quartet

Sunday, July 17, 7:30pm

First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover

Furious, youthful energy distinguishes this 10-year-old ensemble, which has been in residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln since 2005 and for the past three years at Harvard University. In addition to performing Torke's "Chalk," Chiara will play its illuminating versions of the second string quartets by Haydn and Brahms.

Michael Torke Retrospective

Friday, July 22, 7:30pm

First Unitarian Universalist Church

The festival's young artists step up to the big show with festival artists to perform the composer's "Two Girls on the Beach ..." (2005), "Music on the Floor" (1992), and "Fiji" (2007), a piece in which six woodwind instruments play exactly the same thing as each of the six stringed instruments, while five percussionists (maracas, congas, bongos, sandpaper, cowbells – cowbells?!) help transport us to tropical climes.

Tokyo String Quartet

Saturday, July 23, 7:30pm

Bates Recital Hall

The gold standard for string quartets, respected as much for the group's integrity as for its members' virtuosity. They'll show us how it's done with Mozart's String Quartet in D Minor, Dvorák's "American" string quartet, and Schumann's Piano Quintet – this last with a little assistance from another Schumann, the festival's Michelle, on piano. And opening the concert will be recent Austin Critics Table Award winners the Aeolus String Quartet, giving their take on Torke's 2000 piece, "Corner in Manhattan," a sonic portrait of his New York City neighborhood in the afternoon, at night, and in the morning.

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