Review: Chiara Quartet Says Farewell on a High Note

Posted May 13, 2018 4:59 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — As such ensembles go, the Chiara String Quartet was a bright but relatively brief candle. It gave a farewell concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday afternoon, after 18 years of existence and soon after its star turn as quartet in residence at the museum in 2015-16.

In contrast, the Juilliard String Quartet is over 70 years old (with repeated turnover), and the Guarneri Quartet retired in 2009, after 45 years, including its own 43-year residency at the Met. Still, there is much to be said for going out at the top of your game, and the Chiara players — violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota and cellist Gregory Beaver — seemed to be doing just that, each with a new career path in prospect, though leaving open the possibility of future ad hoc collaborations.

The group, which took up residence also at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2004, always had a taste for adventure, promoting new music and exploring concert formats in shows it called Chamber Music in Any Chamber. During its Met residency, it gave New York premieres of works by Jefferson Friedman and Pierre Jalbert and extended its practice of performing from memory, rare among string quartets, with “Brahms by Heart.”

On Saturday, Chiara opened with a work it introduced in 2011, Nico Muhly’s “Diacritical Marks,” a pleasant series of eight brief interconnected movements. It followed with the New York premiere of Philip Glass’ Piano Quintet (“Annunciation”), with pianist Paul Barnes.

This piece grew out of the long collaborative friendship of Glass and Barnes, who is also the chanter for Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. He suggested a liturgical chant to Glass, himself a student of Buddhist chant, as the basis for a piece. To drive the point home, the Met brought in the Axion Estin Chanters of New Rochelle, New York, whom it has featured in other contexts, to sing the hymn both before and, in a more elaborate version, after the Glass performance.

It was a charming idea, though it cannot be said that deep connections between the Glass work and the chants were immediately obvious to ears unfamiliar with either. The two-movement quintet was attractive enough, although — no surprise where Glass is concerned — it did not subscribe to traditional notions of intricate interplay among all the instruments.

For the most part, the piano went one way, and the string quartet, another. In the first movement, the piano purveyed rippling arpeggios, a Glassian trademark, while the strings worked through melodic figures. In the second, the strings mostly took over the arpeggios, holding them to a statelier tempo, and the elements inspired by the chants came more to the fore.

The program ended with Beethoven’s great penultimate quartet, Opus 132, and the Chiara players, true to their recent practice, performed it from memory with complete assurance. Sirota, in remarks from the stage, spoke of Beethoven’s long, chantlike lines in the middle movement, and the quartet, once there, seemed blissfully lost in its timelessness. The performance overall was gripping.

The audience was not about to let Chiara go without an encore, and so came the third movement of Debussy’s Quartet, also by heart — a loving and lovely farewell.

‘Chiara String Quartet’

Performed Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.