Back on tour for the month of November, the four Nordic lads from Danish String Quartet are coming to Santa Barbara to play two back-to-back performances for the UCSB Arts & Lectures series. On November 12 at the Granada Theatre, violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen and Frederik Oland, cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin, and viola player Asbjorn Norgaard will play through an eclectic setlist of old and new numbers ranging from Danish songs, hymns, and pop songs, accompanied by 50 singers from the Danish National Girl’s Choir. Reconvening without the singers for a concert at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on November 13, the quartet’s focus will shift to the classical masterworks of Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, and Ludwig van Beethoven, whose pieces in particular anchor the “Prism Series,” the upcoming five albums the quartet is promoting with this tour.
Shedding some light on his group’s upcoming shows in an interview with the News-Press, Mr. Norgaard said the varied numbers during the Granada Concert will be played in “one musical flow” with harmonic transitions between songs. Although the concert isn’t tied together by some conceptual theme, the viola player said that the performance will have a direction of travel that he described as “from one small, dark point into a broad sphere of light.” Over the course of this arch, the group aims to strike a balance between light and dark sounds.
“If you put a string quartet on stage, you have quite a beautiful default sound. Then add 50 singing girls and it easily gets overkill with all that beauty. So we want to show some grit and darker sides as well,” Mr. Norgaard said.
The default sound from the 54 people on stage might be pretty, but Mr. Norgaard said the Danish National Girls Choir is just as capable of sounding frightening as it is sounding like a chorus of angels. Danish String Quartet has performed several times with the girl’s choir in its native Denmark, an experience the violist always enjoys.
“It is always great to perform with singers as they do things more naturally than other instrumentalists. To be surrounded by 50 human voices, who breathe, sing and move is quite a special experience,” he said.
Danish String Quartet will be down to just its four members come the following night’s performance and will have a drastic change in programming to match. When asked if switching up the musical content from night to night is standard practice for the group, Mr. Norgaard said it’s always tricky to find a balance between having a standard set to work off of and injecting other material so the default set doesn’t go stale.
“On one side we can secure a higher base performance level if we don’t switch much around in the programs, on another side we need some variation to keep our performances fresh,” he said.
The November 13 concert’s program will feature three pieces, “Fugue No. 16 in G minor, BWV 861” by Johann Sebastian Bach, “String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, op. 13” by Felix Mendelssohn, and “String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132” by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Also unlike the November 12 performance, this concert has a far more cohesive theme that ties in with the group’s upcoming albums in the “Prism Series.” As Mr. Norgaard recalled, the inspiration for Danish String Quartet’s Bach, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven program came in 2012 when the group saw The Berlin Philharmonic perform in Copenhagen. At the time, Mr. Norgaard and his band mates were feeling somewhat bored classical programming including their own because of how disconnected songs were.
“If art museums were curated like classical concerts used to be, no one would bother going,” Mr. Norgaard said.
As the four members sat and listened to the German orchestra play Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” and continue without pause into Richard Wagner’s prelude to “Lohengrin,” they experienced a “collective ‘aha’ moment.” When it came time to record the “Prism Series,” five albums centered around five of Mr. Beethoven’s late period string quartets, Danish String Quartet utilized this approach to find new ways of framing these pieces.
For the Campbell Hall concert, the quartet has decided to let Mr. Beethoven’s piece conclude a musical flow preceded by two works with varying degrees connection to it. The choice to include Mr. Bach’s piece came after Mr. Norgaard read Lewis Lockwood’s biography of Mr. Beethoven, which showed a connection between Mr. Bach’s “Well Tempered Piano” and late period Beethoven music. As for Mr. Mendelssohn’s piece in the middle of the program, Mr. Norgaard explained that it was directly inspired by the Beethoven quartet. Old though these pieces may be, the technique Danish String Quartet picked up from The Berlin Philharmonic has shown them a brand new way of presenting the old classics.
“A small trick, but a brilliant way to serve this great old wine in a beautiful new way,” Mr. Norgaard said.Tickets for Danish String Quartet’s concerts can be purchased online at www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu. Both concerts begin at 7:00 p.m.