Retiring artist-in-residence performs with string quartet

On Friday, March 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Ford Chapel, Alec Chien, professor of music, will play his last performance with the Alexander String Quartet before he retires. The following afternoon, Saturday March 7 at 3:00 p.m. in Shafer Auditorium, will be Chien’s last solo performance as a professor at Allegheny College.

The Quartet is composed of Zak Grafilo, first violin, Fred Lifsitz, second violin, Paul Yarbrough, viola, and Sandy Wilson, cello.

The quartet first played at Allegheny in 1990, where they met Chien. For the past two and a half decades, Chien has accompanied the quartet every other year in recitals at Allegheny.

“When I work or practice I try to think. When I perform I try to feel…The character or soul or the performer comes through every time, and comes through differently every time, I might add,” Chien said.

On Friday Chien, together with the quartet, will play the Schumann and Brahms piano quintets. On Saturday Chien will perform four ballades and three polonaises by Chopin.

“It’s truly rewarding to be able to communicate some of the greatest outputs in the history of mankind,” Chien said.  “Some of these phrases, moments, and expressions are humanely innate among all of us, whether we are the composer, the performer, or the listener.”

The quartet makes annual trips back to Allegheny and engages several classes in conversation about the music they play.

“Each year, we have a full schedule for their residency with classes ranging from psychology, neuroscience, English, german, dance, mathematics, history, and of course, music,” Chien said.

“In classes at Allegheny the students get involved in discussions pertaining to the music and whatever discipline we are visiting with at that moment. The meeting of different disciplines helps to break down barriers and allows us all to think outside of the proverbial ‘box,” Lifsitz added.

Chien described a typical classroom experience with the quartet as a kind of dialogue where musical concepts are translated into ideas more accessible to the class subject. The quartet may discuss structure and ornamentation, two mechanical constraints in songwriting, in an architecture class, for instance.

“With comm-arts, for example, Professor Dan Crozier was hoping the Quartet would address the concept of rhythm and meter,” Chien said.  “Now of course, in the comm-arts… that same idea is vital [in acting] just as it is in music.  So the Alexander will undoubtedly play works from their current performing repertoire and show specific areas, passages, or movements where that issue is also critical.”

Susan Slote, Director of Education Studies and instructor of English, has had the Alexander String Quartet visit her British literature class several times. The quartet discusses the movement from Romanticism towards modernism in music, which Slote parallels with examples from Romantic, Victorian, and modernist literature.

“I try to enrich my class by giving my students a sense of what else is happening in the arts. [The Alexander String Quartet] are all scholars, and they know the music history of those periods so well. It’s interesting to think that Beethoven is a Romantic figure on the order of Byron,” Slote said.