Turtle Island Quartet at Strathmore Music in the Mansion
By Jane Coyne – November 21, 2011
When people ask me what kind of music I like, I borrow an answer from Duke Ellington. “Good.” Last night, Strathmore Music in the Mansion presented the Grammy Award-winning Turtle Island Quartet in two performances of “Have You Ever Been ….?” the music of Jimi Hendrix and David Balakrishnan. It was an experience, and it was a very, very “good” one at that.
Turtle Island String Quartet. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.
The Turtle Island Quartet won their Grammy Awards in a category called ‘Best Crossover Album,’ but I’m not sure I would define their music as crossing over. It’s more like a dive into an experience of infused inspiration, heavy on the infusion, and a spiritual and musical journey like no other.
The Turtle Island Quartet is a chamber string ensemble whose members all have extensive conservatory training at such renowned institutions as the Cleveland Institute, UCLA, the Berklee School of Music, the University of Michigan, and the Manhattan School of Music. They know their stuff, and their stuff has set them free. All four members are masters at improvisation, composition and arranging, and their cutting edge musicianship attracts collaborations and followers as eclectic as they are, including Yo-Yo Ma, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Marin Alsop, Paquito D’Rivera, The Manhattan Transfer, the late Billy Taylor, Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony, Ramsey Louis, Sharon Isbin, and many others. Their fan base, like their music, is the world.
Experiencing music in a small venue such as Strathmore’s Mansion is somewhat like spending an evening in an intimate jazz club. I loved walking through the doors of the mansion, admiring the artwork, sipping a complimentary glass of wine, and joining the eclectic group of people there. From young couples in their teens and early twenties, to two elderly ladies well into their eighties, and everybody in between, all were clearly and thoroughly enjoying a very special evening. Besides hearing great music, everybody had a chance to chat with the artists who comprise the Turtle Island Quartet, and they are as nice as they are talented.
The group is the brainchild of founder David Balakrishnan, a violinist who grew up in Los Angeles with an Indian father, an American mother, a violin, and the influence of Jimi Hendrix, bebop, jazz, and more. He was raised in an eclectic environment, and it seems the success he has achieved through his musical endeavors only sparks his boundless curiosity and desire to explore even more in his music. He is brilliant.
Jeremy Kittel (viola), the youngest member of the group, has an endearing smile and engaging personality that reminds me of Ron Howard when he was still Opie. This only serves to endear him even more to his audience as he lets go with inspired and seemingly effortless improvisations that leave all in awe and wishing that he would just keep playing all night. He is simply a joy, and a musician bursting with talent of huge proportion that is clearly and visibly appreciated by his fellow musicians as much as it is by his audience.
Mads Tolling (violin), is perfect in the important role of holding together what Balakrishnan describes as a “bi-polar” group of musicians. A very talented musician and arranger, he has a beautiful sense of harmony, and he knows how to support what is happening without getting in the way of what is happening. He’s a connector, yet when he takes his turn in the spotlight, his ability and right to be there is without question.
Mark Summer (cello), a founding member of Turtle Island, is an experience in and of himself. He holds and plays a single cello, but appears to be filling in for a missing bassist, guitarist, percussion ensemble, and entire classical string section who perhaps missed their plane and are not available to play. Simply amazing, he exudes personality, musical versatility, talent, and a personal joy in playing.
I would like to highlight songs I particularly enjoyed, but to be honest, I have decided I cannot choose. I highly recommend this group. Their CDs are wonderful and available for purchase via the Turtle Island website. They’ll be back in town on March 2nd, performing at the George Mason University Center for the Arts. Don’t miss them.