Music and Beyond: Cuarteto Quiroga honours the traditions of Spanish music

Cuarteto Quiroga. Photo: Molina photos

Instruments made by the legendary maker Stradivarius are rare and valuable. Imagine, then, playing the rarest of those instruments for four years. That’s been the privilege of four young Spanish musicians who make up the string ensemble Cuarteto Qurioga.

The instruments were a gift to the Spanish royal family in the 18th century. They are the only one made specifically to be played together in a quartet. And they are among 11 instruments that are decorated. The sides of each are painted in black swirls and flourishes and the edges of the fronts are lined with inlaid ivory. These instruments are beyond priceless.

For the cellist, Helena Poggio, playing these instruments which are part of the Spanish royal collection has been a great honour.

“We have just finished four years as (the first) quartet in residence where we would do three or four programs a year with the instruments. We would program the music and then would play each concert twice. We were terrified to touch them. In fact we had security people around us when we were rehearsing.”

The first performance of every program would be in the palace in Madrid for members of the royal household, politicians and other dignitaries. The next day the quartet would give a public concert.

“They sound wonderful. They never leave the palace. We’d always go to the palace to rehearse with them about five days before the concert.”

The quartet has met royalty including the Queen mother.

One thing about a stringed instrument. It needs to be played to reach its potential. And Poggio believes these Strads need to be played more .

“I understand the instruments can’t go out, but they need to be played more often. We got to know them and got the best out of them, but it wasn’t easy at first because they hadn’t been played very often.”

The quartet won’t be playing these instruments when they perform three concerts as part of the Music and Beyond festival this week, starting tonight. The other members of the group are: violinists Aitor Hevia and Cibrán Sierra and violist Josep Puchades. The quartet was formed in 2003.

They will however be playing a range of music written by Spanish composers that may not be as familiar to listeners, along with works by Haydn, Schubert, Brahms and Schumann.

The dedication to Spanish music is there in the name of the quartet. It was formed in honour of the Spanish violin virtuoso Manuel Quiroga.

“He is sadly a bit forgotten in Spain,” Poggio said. “He was one of greatest (Spanish) players along with Pablo Casals but he had a terrible accident when he was playing on tour in New York in which he injured his arm and he couldn’t play any more.

“We wanted his name to come back to the music halls to the places where he played when he was at the height of his talent.”

This is Cuarteto Qurioga’s first time to Ottawa. On such a journey, Poggio said, “we feel a responsibility to bring with us a little bit of the music of our country.”

So in two of their three concerts they’ll play music by: Rodolfo Halffter (Tientos), Joaquin Turina (The Bullfighter’s Prayer),  Enrique Granados (Piano Quintet in G minor) and the Argentine Ginastera (Quartet no. 1).

Poggio said the Spanish musical tradition has ebbed and flowed. During the Renaissance, when Spain was one of the great powers, there were a lot of composers working. She said the Granados was influenced by the French composers of the late 19th century along with Turina. But she said you can also hear hints of Spain with  music from Andalusia.

Halffter is a 20th century composer. He was born in 1900 into a family of composers, had German heritage. His piece Tientos connects to folk and traditional music.

That is a strand of musical thinking that Cuarteto Quiroga is exploring in their most recent CD called Terra.

“We put together composers who don’t, on surface, appear to have much to do with each other. But they do because of the folk traditions that they incorporate in their music. One is Bartok, of course, who was going through Romania collecting the songs that people sang before integrating them into his own personal musical language. ” Halffter is on the disc along with Ginastera who brings in the rhythms of Argentine dance music.

We wanted to connect all that on the CD. It’s like Louis Armstrong said, ‘All music is folk music. I never heard a horse sing a song’.

“This is something we like to say because we think that sometimes composers are different from the rest of us and they really aren’t. They are human people. And they heard music when they were small, from their mothers. And all of that is still in there even if it is much more complex.”

In a way the members of the quartet see themselves as ambassadors for Spanish music.

“We take this seriously,” she said. “We feel a commitment to play Spanish music.” And that means the music being made today. They re often commissioning new work, she said.

“We are returning Spanish music to the mob.

“There are so many concerts, so much music you can program, you shouldn’t always do the same stuff. We just want to play some little things that people can discover.”

These days they are preparing to record Spanish music from the 18th century in Madrid. It was a centre of string quartet music then.

But the work is not played much today.

“We feel committed to rescue some of this music, we believe it is very fine music. It’s a pity that some music isn’t heard at all and we are trying to redress that.”

Cuarteto Quiroga
Music and Beyond
When: July 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.

With Arsentiy Kharitonov, piano
When: July 10 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church

With Arsentiy Kharitonov, piano
When: July 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.