Quartet and Native American flutist join forces for program of new music

ETHEL has been rocking the classical string quartet world for years with its adventurous journey int

ETHEL has been rocking the classical string quartet world for years with its adventurous journey into playing the newest of new music. But for its Saturday concert with Native American flutist Robert Mirabal, the mood will be more about serenity and wholeness than hard-edged abstractions.

“It won’t be that gritty downtown New York sound — the stuff ETHEL usually does,” said violinist Cornelius Dufallo. “It’s more a world music, meditative, spiritual feel . . . like traditional folk. We centered the program around Robert.”

The title for the evening is “Music of the Sun,” which reflects one of the ceremonies common in Mirabal’s Taos Pueblo culture.

“It’s a running to the sun,” Dufallo said. “Young men do this every morning as a way to commune with their ancestors.”

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For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman’s review of this show, click here.

With the sun as the focus, the program will include works that Mirabal wrote, or that ETHEL wrote with him. There will also be pieces that fit into that context, which will include Terry Riley’s “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector” (1984), John Luther Adams’ “The Wind in High Places,” a new work that is inspired by three Alaskan mountaintops, and a piece by a young Native American composer that ETHEL first performed as the ensemble-in-residence at the Native American Composers Apprentice Project.

“It was so beautiful we asked Robert if we could include it and he agreed,” Dufallo said from a tour stop in Birmingham, Ala.

The connection to Mirabal is fairly recent. In 2007, Dufallo, violinist Jennifer Choi, cellist Dorothy Lawson and violist Ralph Ferris were scheduled to play a festival in Albuquerque.

“A promoter paired us and we hit it off,” Dufallo said. “We included him on our TruckStop program” — the quartet’s ongoing outreach to musicians in other cultures.

Mirabal has gained fame not only through his two Grammy Awards and his being named Native American Artist of the Year twice, but also as a

celebrated painter, poet, playwright and author. He also makes his own flutes.

As the relationship evolved, the quartet decided that a program centered on Mirabal’s ancient cultural customs and traditional beliefs and his music would be exciting when blended with ETHEL’s versatility, its known abilities to improvise and its skills in learning the musical language and styles of a living composer. It would also be the first time, to the quartet’s knowledge, that a string quartet and a Native American flutist had been paired, Dufallo said.

The premiere of their new collaborative show was in 2008 for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. That was enormously successful, Dufallo said. Last year, the quartet decided to reprise the show for its entire touring season.

To make sure people understand what they’re hearing, the quartet and Mirabal will do a lot of talking at the concert.

“When he talks it’s something . . . what music means to him, and why he does what he’s doing. He talks about his 2,000-year-old culture and that his language is disappearing and about his need to go out into the world to talk to people about this,” Dufallo said.

“He’s a fascinating guy. He travels the world but stays home certain times of the year for the ceremonies. He’s worldly but connected. It’s a thrill to me that we’re working with him.”

Listening to new music can sometimes be a difficult thing for audiences not familiar with what some might call experimental music.

“People have always had a problem with the new,” Dufallo said. “But everything was new at one time. Even Brahms’ work was panned. I can’t guarantee you’ll like what you hear, but I can guarantee that I believe in it.”

For a musician, working with a living composer is an unequaled experience.

“To have the dialogue, to ask questions, to offer suggestions, . . . it’s exciting to play a piece that’s never been played before,” Dufallo said. “When you are the first person to play it, you define the work. There is no baggage as in playing traditional pieces like Beethoven. It’s fresh. You make it your own. Our big job is to bring the music to life. History will determine if the piece is good.”

Dufallo said his early experience with contemporary music was probably like the rest of ETHEL’s members.

“When I walked off the stage after playing my first modern piece, I thought I’d never had so much fun on stage,” he said.

What’s in a name

When the quartet was founded in 1998, the musicians were looking for new directions, which is why they chose their name. ETHEL is neither an acronym nor does it have any significance to anything. Rather, it is a random name that would allow the group the liberty to do whatever it wanted, said their publicist, April Thibeault. Dufallo joined seven years ago and Choi joined last season. Only Lawson and Ferris are original members.

Over the years, ETHEL has accumulated some impressive statistics: more than 50 world premieres in the past three years; 30,000 live audience members to date; collaborations with choreographers Annie-B Parson and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; international festivals in Australia, Holland and Mexico; No.  1 on Billboard’s Best Album of the Year (2003) and Amazon’s Top Classical Editor’s Picks (2006); and a Grammy Award (2009) with jazz singer Kurt Elling.

They’ve also taught 8,000 young Native American composers at the Grand Canyon Music Festival over the last seven years through the Native American Composers Apprentice Program.

More than 50 concerts this season have been scheduled along with more than 20 educational outreach programs. ETHEL’s latest disc “Heavy” (Innova) with music by all New York composers will be issued this spring.

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