Ever since violinist David Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer founded the Turtle Island Quartet in 1985, the ensemble has devoted its repertoire to breaking boundaries. The musicians' latest excursion into virgin territories finds them teaming with Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet in a swinging, grooving program they built around "Louisiana Story," the 1948 film with a Pulitzer Prize-winning score by American composer Virgil Thompson.
The concert at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Saturday opens with six excerpts from the film score, which fuses traditional folk elements with classical orchestration. The second portion of the program features three Doucet compositions: "L'Amour Poisonne," "Cajun Gypsy," and "L'Amour Ou La Folie." Doucet has also chosen the Kinks tune "You Really Got Me" and "La Douceur," a Haitian meringue.
"We met Michael in 1980 when he came to the Bay Area," Balakrishnan said. "It's always been a mecca for string players who want to do something different. Michael came out a lot because his record label is here and to play at a club near me in Berkeley. He loves jazz and took lessons in jazz violin while he was here. I love roots music, so we clicked, but we didn't get together musically for 20 years until we played two years ago at the American Francophone Festival in Louisiana.
"When Michael gets onstage, people go nuts. He sings in the Cajun-French language that gives a crazy feeling of traveling to another world where you envision alligators in swamps. It's very evocative. He grew up in Lafayette, where the real country folk music comes from. As a teenager, he knew about the film and Virgil Thompson's use of neoclassical instrumentation with the Cajun songs. The score Thompson wrote for the Standard Oil Company's film was derived from old recordings of Cajun musicians."
|» Where: George Mason University's Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax|
|» When: 8 p.m. Saturday|
|» Info: $23 to $46, students free; 888-945-2468; cfa.gmu.edu|
Doucet told Balakrishnan that his dream was to find a way to play Thompson's music, but to recapture the Cajun element. By making the "Louisiana Story" music the centerpiece of the concert, the Turtle Island Quartet is exactly the band needed to revisit the work and invest in it Doucet's love and sound.
"I'm happy about the Thompson piece because it shows what TIQ can do," Balakrishnan said. "The string quartet is emblematic of the high art of Beethoven and Haydn and other European classical composers. All the members of TIQ are well-versed in European tradition and equally as well in jazz. Our music is two-tiered. We can be a string quartet with integrity, yet embrace John Coltrane and Jim Hendrix, as we did in 'A Love Supreme,' one of our Grammy Award-winning recordings."
After a long search this past year, TIQ welcomed two new members who share their passion for forging new paths. Polish violinist Mateusz Smoczynski was influenced by John Coltrane while growing up. Described by Balakrishnan as "a monster jazz and classical player," he has a group in Poland modeled on TIQ and is, quite naturally, a perfect fit. Equally astounding was their discovery of German violist Benjamin von Gutzeit.
"To announce the release of our Hendrix record, we were playing at the Apple computer store in Manhattan and in walked this guy with an amp on his back," Balakrishnan said. "It was just what we needed for a show at the Wall Street Journal the next day, so we asked him if we could use it. He was happy to oblige and, during the course of our conversation, we discovered that he was a violist who had won many prizes, played jazz, and was a graduate scholarship student at Manhattan School of Music.
"It's very rare to fine a violist who began on that instrument. Most start on violin and switch if needed. Although we didn't have an opening at that time, we contacted him immediately when one occurred. Needless to say, he and Mateusz are ideal additions to the ensemble."