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What's So Great About A String Quartet Playing By Heart?

Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Chiara String Quartet

You go to a concert and see a string quartet looking like most every other string quartet — until it dawns on you they’re not looking at music. WRTI’s Susan Lewis talks to the Chiara String Quartet, who plays all the Bartók string quartets, and more, from memory.

Listen to WRTI's Susan Lewis talk with three members of the Chiara Quartet about the challenges and benefits in playing complex works from memory.

Radio script:

[Music: Johannes Brahms, String Quartet No. 2 in A minor]

Susan Lewis: The Chiara Quartet released the CD, Brahms by Heart, in 2014. They’d been playing from memory since about 2010, when they discovered the benefits of not looking at music. Cellist Gregory Beaver.

Gregory Beaver: As a quartet, we’ve always valued the improvisatory qualities... that becomes quite a bit more natural when you’re playing without music.

SL: Violist Jonah Sirota and Second Violinist Hyeyung Yoon.

Hyeyung Yoon: Our interpretation loosened up, in a good way; we were able to connect with each other so much more.

Jonah Sirota: It allows for a level of spontaneity and communication we find essential.

[Music: Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 4, last movement]

SL: They went on to record Bartók from memory, a process that involved looking for insights into the mind of the Hungarian composer. He’s known for his fascination with folk melodies, rhythms, and harmonies.

GB: If it doesn’t make sense to you, you can’t remember it. Jonah and I were able to find a metric pattern hidden inside this,  [sings rhythm]

JS: He hoped that by drawing from the ancient, he could ground his music in something authentic, and as we’ve memorized these quartets, they’ve become more natural.

SL: Leading, they believe, to a better connection with listeners.

GB: You hear it as this incredibly energetic, visceral folk-inspired music.

SL: The Chiara String Quartet, which also includes violinist Rebecca Fischer, has recorded all six of Béla Bartók’s quartets on its CD, Bartók by Heart.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.