When one thinks of classical music, the continent that probably comes to mind is Europe. However, the influence of classical music isn’t stuck on that side of the Atlantic and has greatly influenced the genre’s famous American pieces. It is this relationship that the Austin-based Thalea String Quartet will explore with its upcoming performance at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. On January 30, violinist Chris Whitley, violinist Kumiko Sakamoto, violist Luis Bellorin, and cellist Titilayo Ayangade will perform a concert divided between American and European classical pieces, examining the latter’s influence on the former as well as how the former has carved out an identity unique from its European predecessors.
The American works showcased in the concert will include Aaron Copland’s “Movement for String Quartet,” “Three Folksongs in Counterpoint” by Florence Price, and contemporary composer Tanner Porter’s “Switchback,” a brand-new piece written specifically for the Thalea String Quartet. In an interview with the News-Press, Mr. Whitley remarked that Mr. Copland’s “Movement for String Quartet” is an example of the renowned composer’s early work, written while he was a student in Paris, France.
While Aaron Copland has remained a renowned composer since his death, Mr. Whitley said this concert will also showcase creative voices that haven’t been widely heard for a long time. This is the case with the late African-American composer Florence Price, who according to Mr. Whitley was well-liked when she was alive, but forgotten for a long time after her death in 1953. It is only in recent years that her work has received revived interest, in part due to the discovery of some of her music in an abandoned house in 2009. “Three Folksongs in Counterpoint” is an example of Ms. Price combining American and European influences by translating American folk songs through the european musical tradition of counterpoint, which is characterized by multiple, independent melodic lines moving simultaneously through a piece.
By commissioning Ms. Porter to write the Thalea String Quartet’s newest piece “Switchback,” Mr. Whitley and his bandmates are attempting to address one aspect of North American classical music that they don’t feel has progressed far enough.
“There’s still a pretty stark inequality between male and female composers,” Mr. Whitley stated.
Though he said commissioning a female composer today may be seen as some sort of statement, the violinist hopes that will change over the next five years as the number of male and female composers evens out.
Inspired by an annual trip Ms. Porter takes to Yosemite National Park with her parents, “Switchback” was described by Mr. Whitley as a rich-sounding composition with enough accessibility to please a crowd.
“It’s really a beautiful piece. It’s got really beautiful textures and sounds, but it’s really approachable so audiences who have heard it have loved it,” he said.
The concert’s contrasting European portion will consist of one piece, “Op. 59 No. 2” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 8.” As he elaborated on why he and his bandmates selected a Beethoven piece to represent the European classical tradition, Mr. Whitley cited two reasons. First, the German composer’s general influence on classical quartet music, and second because 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Mr. Beethoven’s birth. As he and the other members of Thalea String Quartet play the Beethoven piece beside great works of American classical music, Mr. Whitley hopes the Santa Barbara audience detects the rich connections and distinctions between the two. More than that, however, he wants what he wants for every one of the quartet’s audiences, “To connect to the music in a way that is meaningful to them.”
Tickets for Thalea String Quartet’s January 30 performance at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art cost $20 for museum members, $25 for non-members, and can be purchased online at www.sbma.net. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. in the museum’s Mary Craig Auditorium.