Kontras Quartet

Eleanor Bartsch and Francois Henkins, violins

Ben Weber, viola

Jean Hatmaker, cello

August 3, 2021

Rush Hour Concerts

Robbie Ellis, pre-concert talk host


Javier Álvarez – Metro Chabacano (6′)

Rhiannon Giddens; arr. Garchik – At the Purchaser’s Option with variations (4′)

Antonín Dvořák – String Quartet No. 10, Op. 51 ‘ Slavonic Quartet’ (30′)

I. Allegro ma non troppo

II. Dumka (Elegia). Andante con moto

III. Romanza. Andante con moto

IV. Finale. Allegro assai

Admired for their “superlative artistry” (CVNC Arts Journal), the Kontras Quartet has established an international following for their vibrant and nuanced performances. The “superb Chicago-based ensemble” (Gramophone Magazine) has been lauded for their “crisp precision” (Palm Beach Daily News) and “enjoyable musical personality” (Fanfare Magazine). Kontras means contrasts in the Afrikaans language – fitting for a string ensemble whose colorful repertoire spans centuries, genres, and continents.

The Kontras Quartet’s recent engagements include international tours of South Africa and Switzerland; broadcasts on classical radio stations nationwide (including Performance Today and a 3-month residency with Chicago’s WFMT 98.7 FM); performances at Chicago’s Symphony Center and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; television appearances on NBC and PBS; and sold-out concerts in Telluride, Salt Lake City, Raleigh and Arizona. In the spring of 2018, Kontras and saxophone great Branford Marsalis gave the world premiere of Dan Visconti’s quintet for string quartet and saxophone, a work that the Quartet co-commissioned with San Diego’s Art of Élan.

Kontras enjoys educational work of all kinds, and is in its fourth year as the Quartet in Residence at Western Michigan University. The quartet has also continued its work in the Chicago Public Schools with the support of a grant from the Boeing Company. Outside of the Chicago area, Kontras has made a significant educational impact in North Carolina, bringing over 200 innovative and interactive outreach programs to 40,000 school-age and college students. 

The Kontras Quartet records for MSR Classics and has released three critically acclaimed albums. The first, Origins, features new and lesser-known works from the quartet’s home countries, including the world premiere recording of Dan Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs. The recording was commended by Gramophone Magazine for the quartet’s “scrupulous shading and control”. The second, Lucid Dreamer, features a septet that Kontras commissioned in 2013 with a generous Chamber Music America-awarded grant. The work treads the line between classical music and American folk and invigorates Kontras’ ongoing collaboration with the esteemed Kruger Brothers trio, as does their 2017 release, the Roan Mountain Suite.

Formed while the group’s members were string principals in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Kontras Quartet began pursuing a professional career in 2009. Kontras enjoyed immediate recognition, holding their own against seasoned string quartets from around the country to win a four-year chamber music residency with the Western Piedmont Symphony in North Carolina, a full-time position established through Chamber Music America’s Residency Partnership Program. The quartet has received continued training with the Vermeer and Juilliard String Quartets.

Javier Álvarez (b. 1956)

Metro Chabacano (1991) (6′)

Javier Álvarez was born in México City, México and has a reputation that extends globally. His music combines influences from around the world and incorporates music technologies. Álvarez studied composition and clarinet with Mario Lavista and traveled to the United States to study at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He later moved to England in the early 1980s and attended the City University in London and the Royal College of music under the direction of John Lambert.

His compositions’ span over multiple genres and almost always incorporate different electroacoustic and traditional instruments. Between the years of 1993-1999, Álvarez served as a fellow for the Mexican Endowment for the Arts and Culture and was a founding member of the Sonic Arts Network. In 1993, he served as the Artistic Director of the Society for the Promotion of New Music. During his residency in England, he served as part of the music faculty teaching composition and computer music technology at the City University in London, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal College of Music and the University of Hertfordshire.

Álvarez is a recipient of numerous awards including the Mendelssohn Scholarship, the Lionel Robbins Award, the Gemini Fellowship, the ICEM Prize in Paris (1987), the Bourges International Festival and Austria’s Prix Ars Electronica (1993). His music has been performed around the world, most notably by ensembles such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta and Mexico City Philharmonic.

Program Notes:

The seminal ideal for Metro Chabacano came from an earlier piece for string orchestra, Canción de Tierra y Esperanza, which I had presented to my parents as a Christmas gift in 1986. Having heard a recording of that piece, my friends from Cuarteto Latinoamericano insisted that I should do a version for string quartet. But since none of us had a particular occasion in mind, the idea was abandoned for a few years. In 1990, the sculptor Marcos Limenez approached me with the idea to use Canción to accompany one of his astonishing kinetic installations, which was to be on display in one of Mexico City’s busiest subway stations for a period of three months. This provided the perfect motivation for me to revise the piece, which was performed by Cuarteto Latinoamericano in 1991 at the Metro Chabacano subway station as part of the dedication ceremonies. The piece was subsequently performed on tape for the next three months.

Metro Chabacano has a continuous eighth-note movement of moderately driving speed from which short melodic solos emerge from each instrument. The repeated notes give a false sense of simplicity; although the piece is brief and in a single movement, the rhythms, accents and melodic fragments that emerge from the perpetual motion background are intricately playful.

Notes by Javier Alvarez

Rhiannon Giddens (b. 1977); arr. Jacob Garchik

At the Purchaser’s Option with variations (2016) (4′)

The acclaimed musician Rhiannon Giddens uses her art to excavate the past and reveal bold truths about our present. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens co-founded the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, and she has been nominated for six additional Grammys for her work as a soloist and collaborator. She was most recently nominated for her collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, there is no Other (2019). Giddens’s forthcoming album, They’re Calling Me Home, is a twelve-track album, recorded with Turrisi in Ireland during the recent lockdown; it speaks of the longing for the comfort of home as well as the metaphorical “call home” of death, which has been a tragic reality for so many during the COVID-19 crisis.  

Giddens’s lifelong mission is to lift up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been erased, and to work toward a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins. Pitchfork has said of her work, “few artists are so fearless and so ravenous in their exploration,” and Smithsonian Magazine calls her “an electrifying artist who brings alive the memories of forgotten predecessors, white and black.”

Among her many diverse career highlights, Giddens has performed for the Obamas at the White House, served as a Carnegie Hall Perspectives curator, and received an inaugural Legacy of Americana Award from Nashville’s National Museum of African American History in partnership with the Americana Music Association. Her critical acclaim includes in-depth profiles by CBS Sunday Morning, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and NPR’s Fresh Air, among many others. 

Giddens is featured in Ken Burns’s Country Music series, which aired on PBS in 2019, where she speaks about the African American origins of country music. She is also a member of the band Our Native Daughters with three other black female banjo players, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, and co-produced their debut album Songs of Our Native Daughters (2019), which tells stories of historic black womanhood and survival. 

Named Artistic Director of Silkroad in 2020, Giddens is developing a number of new programs for the organization, including one inspired by the history of the American transcontinental railroad and the cultures and music of its builders. She recently wrote the music for an original ballet, Lucy Negro Redux, for the Nashville Ballet (premiered in 2019), and the libretto and music for an original opera, Omar, based on the autobiography of the enslaved man Omar Ibn Said for the Spoleto USA Festival (premieres in 2022).

As an actor, Giddens had a featured role on the television series Nashville.

Program Notes:

Rhiannon Giddens’ At the Purchaser’s Option with variations is an instrumental variation of a song from her album Freedom Highway (Nonesuch, 2017), arranged by Jacob Garchik. She wrote the song after finding in a book a 19th-century advertisement for a 22-year-old female slave whose 9-month-old baby was also for sale, but “at the purchaser’s option.” This piece comes from that advertisement, and from thinking about what that woman’s life might have been like.

Notes by Rhiannon Giddens

This piece was commissioned for Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, a project of the Kronos Performing Arts Association. The score and parts are available for free online. Kronosquartet.org

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

String Quartet No. 10, Op. 51 ‘Slavonic Quartet’ (1879) (30′)

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák would follow in the nationalist musical tradition of Smetana, bringing the folk music of Moravia and Bohemia to the western world. Antonín started his musical studies early in life, his first surviving work Forget-Me-Not Polka in C was written at the age of 14. He graduated from the organ school in Prague at the age of 19 and started playing viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra while also teaching piano lessons. In 1873, at the age of 32, Antonín would marry and leave the orchestra to be a church organist, which left him more time to compose. These compositions attracted the attention of Johannes Brahms, who helped promote Dvořák’s works. 

After the premiere of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater in 1880, he visited the United Kingdom and received great acclaim. He then briefly conducted in Russia in 1890 and then started teaching at the Prague Conservatory in 1891. He stayed for only a year before moving to New York City to become director of the National Conservatory of Music of America.  He remained at this post for only three years, but still managed to leave his mark. Dvořák made a condition of his acceptance of the position being the admittance of all talented Native American and African-American students, who were unable to afford the school, given free tuition.

One such occurrence of assistance from Brahms was when he recommended Dvořák to Brahms’ own Viennese publisher, Simrock. With Simrock, Dvořák first published a set of Moravian Dances and a set of Slavonic Dances Op. 46, the latter being massively successful, giving Dvořák overnight international recognition. During this thrilling uptake in his career, Dvořák was approached by the Florentine Quartet for a new string quartet in a ‘Slavic style’. Being a viola player himself, Dvořák responded with his Op. 51 String Quartet, his tenth for the instrumentation. Given this origin story, in 1879 Simrock published this quartet, nicknaming it ‘Slavonic’. One of his most optimistic and jubilant quartets, the first movement is full of rising figures and a cheerful polka while the second movement is dreamy and joyful in the style of his beloved dumka (a Slavic dance). While the first two movements demonstrate Dvořák’s expertise of lyricism, the following Romanza drills in this fact with it’s masterful singing quality. We end the only way that makes sense, with an exciting bustling finale in the style of a skočná, a slavic folk-dance that is fast, comedic and bound to be stuck in your head for the rest of the evening. 

Notes by Ashley Ertz

The Clare is the exclusive media sponsor for Rush Hour Concerts.

The Rush Hour Concerts series is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council Agency. Rush Hour Concerts are produced in partnership with St. James Cathedral and WFMT.

Don’t miss the Avalon String Quartet

next week on Rush Hour Concerts!

Tuesday August 10, 5:45pm

This concert is generously sponsored by the Zell Family Foundation

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