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String quartet coming to Potsdam a classic - with Hendrix, dancers in the mix

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In the world of Turtle Island, there is nothing unusual about a string quartet playing the music of Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane.

Performing the music of such rock and jazz greats along with such styles as bluegrass and funk has amazed people enough to earn Turtle Island Quartet two Grammy awards. Since its creation in 1985 by San Francisco Bay-area violinist David Balakrishnan, the quartet has been a groundbreaking force in the creation of bold trends in chamber music for strings.

Turtle Island is “a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today” cellist Yo-Yo Ma has said.

The group will perform in Potsdam on Thursday, Friday and Feb. 2 as part of the 2012-13 Community Performance Series.

The Thursday and Friday performances in SUNY Potsdam’s Sara M. Snell Music Theater will be a collaboration with Chicago-based Luna Negra Dance and Theater Co. On Feb. 2 the quartet will perform its much-lauded Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane program, “Have You Ever Been ...?” in SUNY Potsdam’s Helen M. Hosmer Hall.

The quartet’s albums “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane,” in 2007 and “Have You Ever Been..?: The Music of Jimi Hendrix and David Balakrishnan” in 2010 won Grammy awards for Best Classical Crossover Album.

Mr. Balakrishnan was born in Los Angeles and was received classical training on the violin as a youngster. But he also enjoyed rock ’n’ roll and other musical styles.

He was 14 when he heard Jimi Hendrix perform at the Los Angeles Forum.

“When I heard Jimi Hendrix play guitar, it was like getting kicked in the stomach,” Mr. Balakrishnan said from his California home last week. “It was like falling head over heels in love. I remember my mouth was just hanging open; completely awe-struck.”

He had to learn how to play guitar.

“When you have that sort of passion as a teenager, you do anything to make it work,” he said.

But something happened along the way.

“I had this violin and I could play it much better,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. “I came to the realization that those licks they were playing on guitar with the amplifier turned really loud for feedback, you could do on a violin with nothing. And if you could play violin with the right kind of inflection, you could make it sound like a rock guitar.”

Mr. Balakrishnan said the style “flipped people out.”

“Nobody was doing that in my scene,” he said. “I became very popular in a weird kind of way that I never expected. You combine that popularity with love, and you get a career.”

In the late 1970s, while Mr. Balakrishnan was in his early 20s, the music of bluegrass and jazz artist David Grisman captivated him.

“It was like chamber music the way he was integrating folk music with jazz and classical music,” he said.

Mr. Balakrishnan’s ground-breaking work continued in 1981 when he undertook a master’s degree program in music composition at Antioch University West, San Francisco, where his integration of jazz, European classical, American folk and Indian classical music led to the creation of Turtle Island Quartet. It is named after creation mythology found in Native American folklore.

“Even back then, it was deeper than the novelty of string players playing jazz,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. “It was bringing together the performance practices of these two styles — European classical and American jazz.”

Turtle Island Quartet’s revival of improvisational and compositional chamber traditions have not been explored by string players for nearly 200 years, Mr. Balakrishnan noted.

“Turtle Island Quartet is not trapped by the classical idiom as players,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. “As the years go by, many more players are coming out that are multi-stylistically trained. But Turtle Island, in my mind, is still the best at it and I’m very proud of that. It’s exciting to watch this all evolve.”

Other members of Turtle Island Quartet are Mark Summer, cello, Mateusz Smoczynki, violin, and Benjamin von Gutzeit, viola.

Mr. Balakrishnan said the quartet is forming tracks for its next album, which will be its 16th.

“It has given us 28 years of living and a couple of Grammys,” Mr. Balakrishnan said of his creation. “I think it stands for a very important way of presenting a beautiful 200-year-old tradition while at the same time enlivening it and giving it legs so it can expand.”

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For the two concerts with Luna Negra Dance and Theater Company on Thursday and Friday, Turtle Island Quartet won’t be delving into its well-known improvisational style.

“It’s quite challenging for us to do,” Mr. Balakrishnan said of the structured dance music. “But I love it because the elements are carefully put together and they interact with the dance beautifully.”

The Luna Negra performance on Thursday will feature a world-premiere piece by Spanish choreographer Fernando Hernando Magadan, with an encore performance Friday. It also will perform “The Naked Ape,” also choreographed by Mr. Magadan, and “18+1,” which was choreographed by Luna Negra Dance Theater’s artistic director, Gustavo Ramírez Sansano.

Founded in 1999 by Cuban-born dancer and choreographer Eduardo Vilaro, the Luna Negra Dance Company celebrates the rich Latino culture and is well-known for its choreography, educational programs and performances. It has become an integral part of Chicago’s cultural community while also touring in the U.S. and internationally. According to the Boston Globe, “the troupe’s nine members dance as if it’s the last night on earth.”

The details
WHAT: Community Performance Series presents Turtle Island Quartet with Luna Negra Dance and Theater
WHEN/WHERE: The quartet and the dance troupe perform together at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday in SUNY Potsdam’s Sara M. Snell Music Theater.
The quartet performs its “Have You Ever Been ...?” program celebrating the music of Jimi Hendrix at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2 in SUNY Potsdam’s Helen M. Hosmer Hall.
COST: Tickets for the Luna Negra Danc and Theater performances are $20 and $25 for adults, with discounts for senior citizens and students. Tickets for the Turtle Island Quartet performance range from $18 to $30 for adults, with discounts for senior citizens and students. A 15 percent discount is offered to those wishing to attend both performances (must contact box office directly to receive discount).
Tickets can be purchased by visiting the CPS box office, in the lobby of Snell Theater on the SUNY Potsdam campus, or at Northern Music & Video, 29 Market St., Potsdam. Tickets also may be purchased by calling CPS box office at 267-2277 or going online to www.CPSPotsdam.org.
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