Sascha Jacobsen wasn’t trying to foment a string insurrection. The conservatory-trained bassist just wanted to play some music. As a regular participant in Classical Revolution, the organization that launched a national movement of chamber music jam sessions from San Francisco’s Café Revolution in 2006, he and Sri Lankan-born violist Charith Premawardhana were looking for material. The only piece that fit the ensemble on hand, a string quartet plus double bass, was Dvořák’s String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Opus 77. The group had a ball, and then looked around wondering what to play next. Jacobsen took matters into his own hands.
“I would work on something, print it out, and literally bring it down and throw it in front of whoever was there, and we’d sight read it,” Jacobsen recalls. “It wasn’t always successful. Some times we’d play a piece twice in a row to get it down. After a few months, I realized that we have a repertoire. I wasn’t trying to form a group, and it just worked out that way with the guys who had been there week after week.”Jacobsen’s Musical Art Quintet performs tonight at the Subterranean Art House, focusing on music from the ensemble’s debut album “Nuevo Chamber.” Classical Revolution’s remarkable success in fomenting a national movement stems partly from the excellent, stylistically expansive musicians who have heeded the call. MAQ features cellist Shane Carrasco, violinist Jory Fankuchen and violinist/percussionist Anthony Blea, who also performs in several Latin dance combos.
Every member of the quintet boasts conservatory training, but classically honed technique is only a starting point. The quintet draws a good deal of inspiration from jazz and various Latin American styles, arranging salsa standards like “Algo Nuevo,” a tune introduced by the late great conguero and bandleader Ray Barretto.
On “Fela Feliz,” a feature for Blea, the group tips a bow to Nigerian Afrobeat patriarch Fela Kuti. And “Paddies” is an arrangement of a gorgeous melody by the French-Malagasy guitarist Solorazaf. But if there’s one style that reoccurs throughout “Nuevo Chamber,” it’s tango, both in traditional and electronica inflected incarnations.
“At most of our shows we start with some tangos and cha cha chas,” Jacobsen says. “The Subterranean is an intimate space, the perfect venue for us. We usually get the best response when people are really listening. We’re not good background music.”
As the home of mandolin master David Grisman, Kronos Quartet and the Turtle Island Quartet, the Bay Area has long been a hotbed for genre-bending string players. In recent years a new generation of stringed adventurers has emerged to explore everything from heavy metal to old-time Appalachian music. The rise of Classical Revolution is the surest sign yet that the old boundaries dividing traditions are falling by the wayside.
“The chamber music scene is blowing up,” Jacobsen says. “Obviously Kronos has been around for a long time. “Turtle Island and Quartet San Francisco have done amazing work. And now there’s a new generation of groups that are going from there. There are so many different groups that are inspiring. What’s great about whole Classical Revolution thing is we’re finding new places to perform. We don’t have to wear tuxedos and play at a fancy concert hall. We can play Ashkenaz or Brick and Mortar and reach a lot of different people.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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