From Led Zeppelin to Haydn with the Altius Quartet
By Peter Alexander
The Altius Quartet likes to mix things up.
The string quartet in residence at the CU College of Music, Altius just released a new CD, Dress Code, which does just that, in original and unexpected ways. And they have a concert Saturday at the Dairy Arts Center, “The Many Faces of the Altius Quartet,” that aims in part for the same goal (details below).
“Part of our identity from the getgo has been, how do we introduce people to classical music who otherwise wouldn’t set foot in a concert hall,” cellist Zachary Reaves says. “When we were still in college we would play shows in pubs, and we’d start with Led Zeppelin or whatever. We’d immediately follow it with a Haydn quartet. It was amazing how people’s reaction to Haydn was when they knew we also played Hendrix.”
Ever since the Kronos Quartet broke that ground in the 1970s, a lot of ensembles have mixed popular music with contemporary and standard classical pieces. Altius goes beyond that, in both the CD and the Dairy program, by scrambling the classical pieces in creative ways.
Take the play list for Dress Code. Just like their pub sets, it includes both Led Zeppelin and Haydn. But the Haydn Quartet—Op. 74 no. 1—is spread across the disc, with other pieces between the movements. Those other pieces include Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as well as three rags by William Bolcom and other pop arrangements.
That description doesn’t quite do justice to the quirky and slyly subversive playlist. Apparent stylistic whiplash is better conveyed by the whole list—and even better by hearing the CD from beginning to end.
- Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op 74 no. 1, I. Allegro Moderato
- Dave Brubeck/Michael Jackson: Take it (arranged Reaves)
- William Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag
- Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven (arr. Reaves)
- Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, II Andantino grazioso
- Bolcom: Poltergeist Rag
- Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, III Menuetto
- Bolcom: Incineratorag
- Ben E King: Stand by Me (arr. Reaves)
- Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, IV Vivace
- a-ha: Take on Me (arr. Reaves)
“The idea was that instead of putting all four movements of the Haydn together, for maybe a millennial to skip over, to intersperse it, while giving a taste of what a string quartet sounds like,” Reaves says. “In the arrangements, we try to sound like a classical ensemble, playing pieces that people are familiar with. Then, when they get used to that sound, listening to a Haydn quartet is not so weird.“
The same aesthetic applies in the program for the Dairy. In this case the most unorthodox program choice is a set of Beethoven scherzos, from three different string quartets: Op. 18 no. 6, Op. 59 no. 1 (“Razumovsky”) and Op. 131—one early quartet, one middle and one late.
This idea was hatched between Reaves and James Bailey, curator of the Dairy’s music series. “Bailey’s become a great friend,” Reaves says. “He and I will just talk about ‘What kind of weird things can we do?’ This program is a brainchild between him and me, showcasing how (Beethoven’s) style in general but also specifically his style in scherzos evolved over his entire career.”
The program also includes Through Fog, a piece written for the Altius Quartet by J.P. Merz, who was a masters composition student at CU when he wrote it. “We performed it at Carnegie Hall in November,” Reaves says. “It’s been a huge hit.”
For a portion of the concert, the members of Altius will be joined by violist Stephanie Mientka and cellist Matt Zalkind to perform three sextets: Atlantic Jigpipe by Mientka’s brother Gabriel; Reaves’s arrangement of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody; and Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night).
If the stylistic mix sounds disorienting, I should note that the decisive playing of the Altius moderates the stylistic dislocations. Played with conviction and stylistic clarity, Haydn and Queen sit comfortably together on the same stage.
This is in the quartet’s toolkit, no doubt because, as Reaves says: ”We all grew up listening to so many different kinds of music that it’s hard to pick one.” But it is also a mark of their solid training and great musicianship that Dress Code is an artistic success as well as a milestone in the young quartet’s career.
Altius has been in Boulder for nearly three years, working with the Takacs Quartet. They will shortly complete their residency, but they plan to stay in the Boulder area as they pursue a career as a professional string quartet. “We’ve kind of fallen in love with area,” the quartet’s cellist, Zachary Reaves, explains. “Being close to the mountains, but aside from that, we’ve met a lot of great people here and made a lot of really good contacts.”
In addition to Dress Code, they have also recorded an album of music by Shostakovich, which will come out in the fall. In the meantime, they will celebrate the first album with a CD release party 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13, at Caffè Sole, 637R South Broadway in Boulder (Broadway and Table Mesa Drive).
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Dress Code. Altius Quartet: Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano, vioins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello. Navona Records NV6078
One Night Only: “The Many Faces of the Altius Quartet
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, the Gordon Gamm Theater, Dairy Arts Center
Atlantic Jigpipe by Gabriel Mientka
3 Scherzos by Beethoven
Through Fog by J.P. Merz
Bohemian Rhapsody by Freddie Mercury
Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schoenberg