Unplugged ETHEL: two Seattle concerts, one groundbreaking string band

ETHEL

By Gigi Yellen

The Seattle concert series called Simple Measures rarely risks investing in such a high-profile touring ensemble as Ethel. That makes this weekend’s two concerts as important as they are accessible.

With no stage separating performers and audience, in Simple Measures’ usual friendly neighborhood venues, the internationally renowned string quartet known as Ethel will not be playing amplified.

For them, that’s odd.

Violinist Cornelius Dufallo, who joined the group six years ago (just after their last Seattle appearance), says he’s excited about sharing with Seattle’s “vibrant arts scene” their all-acoustic program, “Present Beauty.”

“When you’re first playing amplified,” he says, “it’s exciting, but when you go back to acoustic” after a while, it’s just as exciting. Dufallo and Ethel’s other players—violinist Mary Rowell, violist Ralph Farris, and cellist Dorothy Lawson—are all Juillard graduates. During their conservatory training, he says, music was only acoustic. Now, he says, Juillard students are routinely plugging in, and the school has “an amazing new theatre” with all sorts of sound.

That is to say, during Ethel’s dozen-year life span, the most respected American training ground for classical musicians has accepted new technology as part of the developing tradition of concert sound.

Dufallo’s compositional work on this “Present Beauty” program includes his arrangement of Philip Glass’ music for the film “The Hours.”

“The theme of the concert is appreciating the beauty of the present moment,” he says. “The Glass is relevant in that it’s meditative, brings the listener back to the present, and also because of the movie itself. It’s about Virginia Woolf and her stream of consciousness writing.”

They’ll also dip into “The Flag Project” by Huang Ruo, inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, and music by Julia Wolfe, “a vigorous, intense, driving” music, according to Dufallo, that brings “more of an ecstatic state” to the present moment.

Recently on tour in Holland, Ethel loved a little club called Paradox, where Dufallo says they found audiences eager for surprises, like the ones they find at their frequent New York hangout, Joe’s Pub.

“We always try to talk to the audience,” he says. Of course, such talk defines the audience-close-up Simple Measures concerts.

“Part of our mission,” says Dufallo of Ethel, “has been to blur the lines between genres.” Playing as the house band at the TED conference was an “amazing” experience, he says, full of “people changing the world.” Not unlike themselves.

In the coming season, Ethel will be presenting a program they’ve been working on for a couple of years, “Music of the Sun,” inspired by Native American flute music. The group has been doing residencies at Navajo and Hopi reservations, working with student composers and mixing current avant-garde concert music with ancient sounds.

Since Ethel began, their line-crossing approach to chamber music has inspired many other ensembles.
“Our goal isn’t to be different,” says Dufallo. “Our goal is to do what we believe in. We would like to present the musical arts as a form of communication between cultures and across genres.”

Do they ever just play, say, a Beethoven string quartet, like a sorbet, to clear the palate? “Oh, no,” says Dufallo. “We’ve all done that with other groups. For us, clearing the palate is playing with a Kentucky banjo player, or a Hawaiian slack key guitarist.”

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