Category Archives: Turtle Island Quartet

Kahane, Thile, and Mehldau, followed by the Turtle Island Quartet. (And uh-oh, young audiences like small venues.)

What a fantastic night last night.  Met a friend for a quick supper at Quantam Leap (moderately priced vegetarian/fish restaurant, where the salmon chowder is great) on Thompson St., just a block from [le] poisson rouge, our first music destination of the evening (hmm . . . I went from eating a red fish to going to a show in one).  Gabriel Kahane, Chris Thile (Wikipedia link; http://www.christhile.com brings up a “this account has been suspended” notice), and Brad Mehldau, none of whom I had heard before (live, anyway;  I do have a Gabriel Kahane album and sorry wallet, we’ll be buying more music of all three) were the performers. After hearing much of that, we ducked out, grabbed a cab and headed to Symphony Space for the second of two Turtle Island Quartet Hendrix Project concerts.

When we slipped into LPR  at 6:45PM for the sold-out 7:30 show, the place was already packed.  Luckily, a friend of my friend was saving us seats at a table, maybe the last two in the room.  An evening standing held little appeal, so my heart (and my feat) warmed with gratitude for my new acquaintance.  He works at a major traditional classical venue and, after I told him about what I’m doing this spring, commented:

“With this generation, it’s all about the size of the venue.”

Did I emphasize that enough to get your attention?  If correct (and it’s consistent with what I’ve been seeing), it is good news for innovative small groups and entrepreneurial club owners, and horrifying, global-warming, climate-is-changing, the-glaciers-are-melting, holy-shit news for those working to maintain (or salvage) the health of large concert halls and opera houses, symphony orchestras, etc.  If it’s indeed a generational shift, the problems for large venues are only going to get worse as time goes on.  At a marketing seminar, I heard a speaker point out that it doesn’t take much to sell cold water to a thirsty crowd on a scorching day–supply and demand.  Likewise, it’s hard to sell ice cream cones during a blizzard.  There are limits to what you can do with marketing.  Large halls may find themselves more and more to be those ice cream cones in a blizzard. But I digress.

The LPR how was so good, and I’m tired of the usual adjectives, so I’ll just say it was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

I’d already fallen in love with Kahane’s silky/sexy/intelligent/witty singing/songwriting as he’s musically seduced me through my iPod on the subway.  His opening set was mostly his own music, ranging from laid-back, sensitive energy with which I was already familiar to the almost riotously funny (in the concluding number from his Craigslistlieder) and left me an even bigger fan.  When Brad Mehldau–an extraordinary jazz pianst–accompanied him for one song, Kahane, who otherwise accompanied himself on the piano or guitar, gave us what I found to be his most deeply nuanced singing of the evening.  And who wouldn’t be taken to a new level making music with Mehldau?  Somewhere in the middle of all this, he did “two favorite breakup songs”–the least stiff and pompous performance of Schumann’s Ich Grolle Nicht I’ve ever heard, which morphed into [pop song title to be inserted!], complete with a audience singalong.

Kahane’s set transitioned into Thile’s as the pair did a couple of songs together.  Learning that I hadn’t heard Thile perform before, a table companion had said, “I think he’s a genius,” and I think that’s right.  Relaxed, laid-back, with bed-head hair, his virtuosic mandolin playing and inventive musicianship were astounding.  Since the event started late, my friend and I only got to hear four or five of Thile’s numbers before we had to leave. We slipped out just as he finished a brilliant, nuanced, and wonderfully shaped performance of the Prelude from the Bach E Major Violin Partita.

With about 20 minutes or so to go before the 9:30 PM Turtle Island concert on the Upper West Side, we splurged on a cab and made it just in time for the first number.  This group, when it started, was, along with Kronos, but in a very different way, trail-blazing in taking the traditional classical string quartet and doing something different–jazz, pop, and rock arrangements.  They’ve had a hugely successful career, won Grammys, played all over the world, and probably did more than anyone else to start the movement that string educators call “alternative styles.”  Many cellists, including me, are big fans of the group’s cellist Mark Summer, whose solo piece Julie-O has become a virtual standard for young cellists venturing outside the standard classical rep.

I’d never heard them live.  Founding members Summer and David Balakirshnan, who plays violin, baritone violin and does most of the group’s arrangements, are now joined by young guys Mads Tolling (violin) and Jeremy Kittel (viola).  (Given the generational differences on stage, the gay-culture voice in my head realized that if they wanted to tour gay clubs they could promote themselves as “Twinks and Daddies.”)

Amazing–absolutely amazing–technique (or I should say array of traditional and non-traditional techniques) displayed by all four, great arrangements of Hendrix and and John McLaughlin and original music by Balakrishnan, and Summer did a terrific solo version of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”  I was so excited to see them.

Full of appreciation for the group’s historic “genre-bending” (as they say on their website) influence, and all that’s great about what they do, I have to say I found the concert surprisingly unengaging on an emotional level.  Hendrix!  I expected some sort of balls-t0-the wall, hugely emotional (at least at times), free-wheeling performance.  Other than being causally dressed (untucked long-sleeve shirts and jeans), their stage deportment, much to my surprise, was like that of any calmly dull classical quartet and the performance oddly unenergetic.  The dynamic range was (most of the time) narrow, and all four were usually staring intently at the music.  What I thought should have been wild-and-crazy, improvisational-feeling solos looked careful and calculated.  Some people close their eyes when watching classical performers they find overly histrionic;  I closed my eyes quite often last night because they looked so tired and blasé to me (it sounded better than it looked).  At one point Tolling, while not playing, was leaning so far back in his chair, with his legs stretched out, that it looked like he wanted (or was starting) a nap.  I’m all for informality in performance, but it needs to be accompanied by electricity and range–all of which had been abundant in the show I left.

This may have been an off-night and perhaps they were worn out from a busy tour.  It was their second show of the evening (and they may have done other stuff during the day), and the audience was smallish.  I’m harping on this for a reason, to drive home the point to my students, and offer a friendly reminder to myself and other performers, that every concert needs to be special. That’s what we need to aim for. My friend and I spent a lot of money on tickets and a cab, and we tore ourselves, mid-performance, from an incredible event  in order to come to what seemed to be just another gig for them.  Someone I know in the audience, a longtime Turtle Island fan, told me, “I hate to say it, because it was great music, but I was bored.”  The Turtle Island Hendrix CD was for sale in the lobby, along with others.  I just wanted to go home and download some real Hendrix on iTunes.  Well, c’est la vie.

That said, I was thrilled to hear them in person.  I had a nice short chat with Summer, which felt awkward and I purposely kept brief, because I knew I was going to bitch about the concert here this morning and I didn’t want to say, “gee, I admire your skill and historic importance but this show was disappointing.” I saw Balakrishnan in the bar, who asked if I’d been at the show and liked it, and I said, with total honesty, “Your arrangements are fantastic.”  And he shared how wonderful it is to write for this group–“a kid in a candy shop”–which I totally get.  That little taste of his joy was, for me, the emotional highlight of the Turtle Island half of my evening.

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Filed under Chris Thile, Le Poisson Rouge, Symphony Space, Turtle Island Quartet