By Stephanie Powell

Still in school and studying at the Aspen Music Festival years ago, the Chiara Quartet—violinists Rebecca Fischer and Julie Hye-Yung Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver—experienced a seminal moment: a musical conversation between the Takacs Quartet and Muzsikas, a Hungarian folk ensemble. The two groups performed Bartok and Hungarian folk music back and forth—an exchange that “opened up the possibilities of what music like this can sound like, and how it affects people,” Fischer says.

“[Bartok] has been very familiar to me and for our quartet—[his] music has felt like home in a sense,” she says. “It’s one of those things in a lifespan of a quartet—it’s one of those wonderful projects that one gets to do, play cycles of composers’ work.”

Performing and recording Bartok’s complete cycle (available August 26 on the Azica label) will be a milestone for the Chiara. They also plan to perform it from memory—a feat the quartet has done before with the Brahms cycle in 2012, and with works by various composers including Haydn and Gabriela Lena Frank—at the Ravinia Festival on September 7 and 8.

Folk and oral tradition play interesting roles in memorizing Bartok’s work, Fischer says. Many of the pieces Bartok transcribed were originally passed down through oral tradition—with the music changing ever so slightly from one generation to the next. Which begs the question: Does the memorization process allow for the spirit of improvisation?

“In a sense, the goal is to improvise on the music, or to feel close to that improvisational process,” she says. “When we were first playing and memorizing the quartets, there’s a stage where you feel like it’s about the memory. We’re always trying to get away from the score and the detail-oriented nature of memorization so we can be freer to feel spontaneous with it—to feel like we can improvise, even if we’re really still just playing the notes.”

During the memorization process, the quartet consulted many of Bartok’s early field recordings, which offered valuable insight, Fischer says.

“We thought a lot about the oral tradition that inspired a lot of Bartok’s early recordings and how that relates to what we’re trying to do,” she says. “We’d like to think that that inspiration affects the recording—it’s what inspired us to take on this project.”

Each quartet member is responsible for memorizing the complete score, not just one’s own part. Memorizing quartet music is completely different than memorizing a violin cadenza, for example, Fischer says, and it’s critical to be able to follow along to all parts of the music. “It’s the most incredible feeling to go out onstage and to have no music there and feel like you know all this music by heart, and you can rely on your colleagues to play very fancily, spontaneously, and creatively. And you can be able to catch them in whatever process they are going through onstage.”

Fischer says she’s looking forward to the complexity of Bartok’s writing. “It’s very democratically written in terms of the string quartets so there’s a lot for everybody to do.”

Memorizing and analyzing Barok’s cycle allows the quartet members to get inside the composer’s head. “You start realizing some of this music starts making more sense because we get behind it first. These are the building blocks of the compositional process, and then we start analyzing. Once you get through that process, it’s much freer to perform, and you don’t think about how complex it is.”

Performing by heart allows the quartet to be more authentic to themselves as a group, she says. “More authentic to our interpretation, to our point of view pertaining to a specific piece—it helps us to be freer to ourselves and the music.”

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