By Lucy Volker
Kicking off its fifth year as Seattle’s up-and-coming classical music company, Emerald City Music often graces the pages of OLY ARTS with showcases featuring world-renowned artists who specialize in reimagining the boundaries of classical music. This year is no exception; come February 15, the Grammy-nominated Aizuri Quartet will perform its collection “Songs and Echoes of Home” in Olympia’s own Washington Center, as well as neighboring locations in Seattle and Bellingham.
While the debut album Blueprinting (2018) defies genres, from its vivid, engaging first song “Carrot Revolution” to its stirring, mesmerizing three-part conclusion (tracks titled “Lift Pt. 1,” “Pt. 2” and “Pt. 3,” respectively), Aizuri Quartet strays from original compositions in this performance, instead giving the audience a carefully curated cocktail of songs tied together with a more personal common ground. “One thing that sets the Aizuri Quartet apart is that all its members are female,” notes Emerald City Music artistic director Kristin Lee. “That’s pretty unique in the classical chamber music world. I don’t know that we can say that about another group we’ve had perform.”
Another less obvious feature that sets Azuri apart is its multifaceted repertoire: rather than stick to one subgenre of classical music, for this particular performance the quartet offers a mix of timeworn classics and newer pieces, not only classical but folksong, tying their concerts together with one overarching motif. This concert’s theme is “Songs and Echoes of Home,” featuring pieces with a personal significance to each of the quartet’s members — music that the quartet’s cellist Karen Ouzounian describes as embodying “a sense of homeland and national identity, but at a distance, one step removed by the forces of psychology, geography and time.”
Lee describes the musicians as “champions of celebrating the classics — but also commissioning more modern living composers, who might not be heard as often.” So no matter our take on folk song, we’ll likely be pleasantly surprised as the quartet reimagines the definition of the genre. The arrangement begins with three sets of songs from Romantic-era composer Antonin Dvorak’s “Cypresses,” which was originally titled “Echoes of Songs” — another thematic tie-in. These particular compositions draw inspiration from love poems by the Czech poet Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky, which encapsulate a love and reverence for nature and its sense of Czech identity. Dvorak’s timeless works are followed by the darker, melancholic works of Komitas, an Armenian priest who composed folk songs to encapsulate the unspeakable sorrow of the Armenian genocide in the 1800s. For the Armenian people, these works were some of the only remnants of their homeland inaccessible by their oppressors. “They offer to their listeners,” says Ouzounian, “a window into the Armenian soul.”
The program shifts, then, into something a bit more modern, although still resonating with that sense of history passed down throughout generations. The first half of the program concludes with the musical poems of Lembit Beecher, a composer who often draws inspiration from themes of belonging and home himself. His works, titled “These Memories May Be True,” are derived from elements of his grandmother’s Estonian culture, mixed with his own childhood memories, distorted through the lens of time. “This piece is a little like the scattered image of Estonia that I had while growing up, filtered through many layers of retelling, and touched by a sense of nostalgia,” he says of his songs.
In the second half of the program, the theme switches focus onto something a little more insidious. In “At the Purchaser’s Option,” musical historian and composer Rhiannon Gidden uses spirited, stable folk stylings to mournfully reimagine the life of a 19th-century female slave and her child. The entire conglomeration comes to a crescendo with early-modern Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s “Voces Intimae,” written during a period of crisis, as Sibelius battled alcoholism and rapid mental deterioration. Regardless of the somber themes, the rapidly changing tones of the piece culminate in a triumphant finish that certainly instills a sense of awe in the audience.
The takeaway? The Aizuri Quartet transcends genres and generations, defies borders and boundaries, and still ultimately ties a centuries-long span of music together with one common truth: Each and every one of us deserves to have somewhere or something to come home to. “They’re eclectic and diverse,” says Lee, “which, at the end of the day, is ultimately what Emerald City Music tries to embody.”
The Aizuri Quartet’s Songs and Echoes of Home
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15
The Washington Center for the Performing Arts Black Box,
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia