Montclaire String Quartet's mission is to educate as well as entertain
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Amelia Chan knows a lot of people have a preconceived notion of what classical music sounds like. She also knows it's much more varied than that notion.
And she and the other members of the Montclaire String Quartet, the quartet-in-residence for the West Virginia Symphony, are working hard to show that. Very hard.
In addition to Chan, who plays violin, the quartet consists of viola player Bernard Di Gregorio, cellist Andrea Di Gregorio and violinist Anton Shelepov. All also are the principal player in their respective sections for the symphony, and Chan is its concertmaster.
The ensemble's most visible performances are the four concerts that comprise its season in Charleston. However, that's only a sliver of its schedule. The bulk of the performances take place in schools across the state and in Ohio. This year, the quartet will perform about 70 of those to students from kindergarten to college.
"Classical music itself can be very exciting, but also, we try to put the educational aspect of it in a way that would help [students] appreciate and find out what the excitement is in there, to see the beauty of it," said Chan, who came to the symphony in 2004 from New York City. "We have, so far, had very positive results."
Many of the school engagements, she said, came about after the quartet began playing at a conference for school principals.
"We started going there to show our show to the principals, and that's one of the reasons we've been getting more requests," she said. "They actually see what we do, and think, 'Our kids might like that.' A lot of schools assume we just play -- not say or do anything else. They have a sort of preconceived notion of how kids perceive classical music."
In reality, Montclaire's student programs are quite lively, especially for elementary school children.
"We have different programs for different ages," she said. "For the younger kids, we do a musical play [written by Andrea Di Gregorio], incorporating all our pieces into a story to help engage them. Through the story, we teach them some general musical concepts and knowledge, like what is rhythm, what is melody.
"It's just a lot more engaging for kids when there is a storyline for them to follow. We also try to expose them to different styles, not just of classical music, but to insert other genres, like bluegrass or rock 'n' roll, to show them the universal use of instruments and the universal purpose of music."
For middle school and up, the quartet members talk to the students about the pieces being played. One of its current programs discusses the evolution of the string quartet and includes a repertoire demonstrating that evolution. The group even throws in a rock song.
"We do a rock 'n' roll song to show that you can use string quartets to play rock music," she said. "It's sort of a natural evolution."
Chan said it's difficult to define the workload division between the symphony and the quartet. The past two seasons, though, have leaned more in the direction of the quartet.
"The quartet has been working a lot more in the last couple years, with more demand in school concerts," she said. "And this season and the end of last season, we have also played more recitals out of town."
She estimated that the ensemble performed six or seven out-of-town recitals last season. Later this year, it will have a weeklong residency in Lewisburg, performing at schools there before giving a public concert at Carnegie Hall.
"We've discovered all these wonderful places in West Virginia," Chan said of the out-of-town shows. "We meet a lot of very interesting people and see a lot of places that are very special."
Choosing what to play at these performances is a group decision.
"There's a lot of democracy involved -- and a lot of arguments involved," Chan laughed. "A lot of people not getting what they want involved.
"We have meetings where we just suggest what we'd like to play," she continued. "A lot of times, its just about the four of us agreeing on what to play, and sometimes somebody might have an idea for a theme."
Last year, Montclaire performed a themed program called "Miniatures," which Chan said was a success. The format for classical music concerts, she said, is usually one shorter piece, one that's slightly longer, an intermission and then a bigger, longer piece in the end. "Miniatures" abandoned that format.
"We came up with the idea of doing a concert where everything is very short," she said. "So, basically, we found a whole bunch of pieces, some as short as slightly over a minute."
Chan said the audience feedback was very good. A similar concert is planned for next season.
The Montclaire String Quartet performs the third of its four Charleston concerts on Feb. 24. The program, "The Kreutzer Sonata," includes pieces by Beethoven and Bach. The showcase piece is written by Leos Janacek.
"It's a very, very dramatic piece based on Tolstoy's short story, 'The Kreutzer Sonata,'" Chan said. "It's incredibly dramatic. There is murder and everything, all expressed in music. I would say it's very different from what people might think of as an afternoon of string quartet music."