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15 Questions to the Chiara String Quartet

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm at home in Nebraska, where we have a teaching residency. I just made gazpacho for dinner out of really great local tomatoes, and then I put my son Taavi to bed. Life is good.

What’s on your schedule right now?

The Chiara Quartet just ended our first summer off since we started almost ten years ago. Greg and Julie (our cellist and second violin) had a brand new baby girl named Noori in July, so we just started performing again. Now we hit the ground running: our first Beethoven cycle at Harvard and Smith College, our first concert at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., recording the Op 111 Brahms viola quintet with Roger Tapping to round out our CD of the Brahms quartets, and club shows all over the country, among other things.

What is your earliest musical memory?
Listening to the overture from Bernstein's Candide, over and over again on my little record player (I was maybe three at the time).

Was there a deciding moment, which made you want to become an artist?

Up until the end of high school, I was on the fence about whether I would become a musician. I loved it, but there seemed to be so many wonderful things to study in college that I was really tempted to get away from music for a while. The summer before my senior year, I was at a fantastic chamber music camp called Greenwood, and I was assigned the amazing slow movement from the middle of Beethoven Op. 132. Working on and performing that piece became life-changing. Suddenly, knowing that I could have the chance to play this music for the rest of my life, made the idea of not doing that seem impossible.

How satisfied are you with life as an artist?
It's amazing to perform for so many different kinds of people. I feel very lucky, and I know that my quartet colleagues feel the same way.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

A good live performance is present. Present to one another in the group, present to the intent or greater meaning in the composer's voice, present to the room--to the specific group of people listening, and present to the moment in time. If you get all of these going, the rest takes care of itself. A performance should be unique. No performance should match any other (or even try to!). I believe that we have gotten too obsessed with perfection of the kind that makes recordings sound clean. Yes, playing well and playing accurately are noble goals. But what is the real point? If that is all there is, the whole endeavor is a waste. We are trying to create new life in a piece of music. Risks must be taken. There is no safe way out of that problem.

How do you balance your personal emotions and the intentions of the composer in your interpretations?
I think that composers, by and large, are very happy when you get your personal emotions involved. For us, understanding the intention of the composer is a process of looking behind the printed page and connecting the motives, themes, and architectures in the work to our own experience. Before this happens, we don't really "know" the piece, even if we can play a score-accurate reading.

In which way, would you say, is your cultural background reflected in your performances?

This is a hard question! There are so many different cultural backgrounds that we carry with us. String quartet playing has is its own tradition and history, and as a group we are inextricably linked with our mentors and the history of people who have interpreted some of this music before us. Our own individual cultural backgrounds, which are diverse, are important. And sometimes, where they seem to conflict, or at least have little to do with the performance tradition, we have found interesting ways to bring them together. We did a program of works that featured composers who worked to bring the music and materials of their own backgrounds into "western classical" compositions, from Bartok up through Gabriela Lena Frank (a California-based composer of Peruvian and Jewish descent). The idea was, how can you combine cultures without losing a sense of who you are? I think the program raised as many questions as it answered.

How would you describe and rate the scene for classical music of the country you are currently living in?
The U.S. seems currently to have a couple of different, parallel, classical music scenes. On the one hand, you have traditional classical orchestras and presenters. They are facing some very real challenges in terms of holding on to audiences and numbers of performances. Even serious arts presenters paired with committed audiences are feeling the pressure to present a wider variety of arts than they used to, so classical is a smaller piece of the pie. This is not always a bad development for the arts, just difficult for traditional classical music. Then there is a new progressive indie-classical performance thing happening, where groups like ours also play shows in clubs and art spaces. This scene is alive and vital, but still young. But it reaches a new audience, and that's really the point. People want to hear great music. They don't care as much as they used to about what type of music it is. That is the positive flipside to the "larger menu," and even traditional presenters are getting involved.

Do you consider it important that more young people care for classical music? If so, how, do you think, could this be achieved?

There is a real movement in some popular music towards "art pop," (for want of a better term) well-crafted, complex music like the stuff Radiohead, Matmos, and some other groups put out. The audiences for this music are listening with the kind of commitment and detail of a traditional classical listener. Many young classical musicians are also fans of this kind of music. It's no great stretch to imagine audiences for Björk, for example, listening to Andriessen, and in fact it's already happening at places like Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I personally think the goal should be to get young listeners interested in good music wherever it is. "Classical music" is what we do, but the generation coming up is less and less interested in defining themselves along genre lines. Let's get people interested in great music. The rest should take care of itself.

How would you rate the importance of the internet and new media for you personally?

It's really important, mostly because social networking and viral marketing are the ways that we are connecting to our friends and fans now. I'm not the kind of person to jump up on the roof and trumpet how great we are, but it's nice to be able to connect with people who are really like-minded and interested in what we are doing.

What’s your view on the relationship between musical education and music?

It can always be healthier. When I was at Juilliard, I studied aesthetic education and outreach with Eric Booth, a great teaching artist. It's funny, I heard both performers and music education folks express annoyance at his approach, probably because he really doesn't believe that they should be made distinct from one another. He's been really influential for us--one of the guiding principles in our group is that performance and outreach are never separate.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
My sister Nadia Sirota is a monster new-music violist in New York, and her group ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) is awesome. Nico Muhly is a great composer/performer who everyone should know (if they don't already). Simone Dinnerstein is an incredible pianist who has been an important collaborator for years. We have some brilliant friends and relatives, so I'm afraid I would be completely tempted to book them even with the charge of favoritism!

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
I have played on a very special 1755 Testore, but for various reasons it is no longer available. However, Gregg Alf (a great instrument-maker in Ann Arbor, Michigan) has just completed a copy of this instrument for me to use, which I am dying to get my hands on. It will be very interesting to experience something so new based on something so old.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?

I'd like to learn to play the tabla someday. I tried my hand at piano, guitar, and violin, but viola won.

Image by Liz Linder


Chiara String Quartet:
2009 -10 DEMO CD  (Self-Released) 2009
Robert Sirota – Triptych (New Voice Singles) 2006
Brahms and Mozart: Quintets for clarinet and strings (SMS Classical) 2006
Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (New Voice Singles) 2006

Nadia Sirota Solo:

First Things First (New Amsterdam) 2009

Chiara String Quartet

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