In performance: Turtle Island Quartet at 25
At twenty-five, the Turtle Island Quartet exists in a constant state of renewal. Founding members violinist David Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer welcome young second violinists and violist who are attracted by the sort of technical and improvisational opportunities the standard classical repertoire doesn’t offer. They bring new ideas, new repertoire and amazing skills to the group, stay several years and then move on.
The quartet’s silver anniversary celebration at the George Mason Center for the Arts on Saturday, for instance, gave its newest member, the violist Jeremy Kittel, a terrific show case for some of his stuff — a soul-searing blues cry in the opening arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Have You Ever Been,” a delicate interweaving with guest artists, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and guitarist Mike Marshall, in a jazz version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and an enthrallingly intricate improvisation in the group’s version of Miles Davis’s “Milestones.” Kittel is classically trained, an internationally acclaimed fiddle champion, jazz performer and composer, and twenty-four years old.
What The Turtle Island Quartet artists have with their repertoire of non-standard sound-producing techniques is the ability to recreate the best jazz, rock, bluegrass and the rest in sonorities that are rich, transparent, balanced and blessedly lightly amplified. This program was a retrospective of the music that this group has made its own over the years. There was an arrangement of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” with Chestnut spinning droplets of notes over the percussive chuff of the violins and the bass-like thumping of the cello; a joyous rendition of Clapton’s “Crossroads”; and Marshall’s bass mandolin, down-home-sounding version of “Gator Strut.” Chestnut’s pensive leads in arrangements of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” wandered from sweet to astringent, and were both gentle and crystalline.
Balakrishnan’s “Monkey Business,” a commentary on Darwinian controversy, came the closest, stylistically, to classical idioms and rounded out a program that featured astonishing versatility.
— Joan Reinthaler