Mindful Music: A Virginia Quartet Practices Chamber Music as Way of Life 

click to enlarge Known for spirited performances, the Garth Newel Piano Quartet is based at the music center of the same name, which is near Hot Springs, Va.

Lee Brauer

Known for spirited performances, the Garth Newel Piano Quartet is based at the music center of the same name, which is near Hot Springs, Va.

Keeping a music genre vital that traces its history back a few centuries and across even more continents seems like a near futile endeavor. And living in the far reaches of Virginia, where the differences between the commonwealth and West Virginia can be negligible, might make all the vaunted undertakings of the Garth Newel Piano Quartet even more difficult.

“One does have to be very mindful living in a rural community like this,” says Shawn Puller, executive director of the Bath County nonprofit organization enabling the chamber orchestra to persist. “You have to be very thoughtful just about how you go about your daily life. How that plays out in individuals is just so incredibly varied.”

The Garth Newel Music Center, situated up a narrow stretch of road and composed of a raft of scattered buildings on about 100 acres, grants performers the unique opportunity of quietude and focus. Replete with an origin story involving an internationally recognized painter, William Sergeant Kendall, and a student he eventually married, the organization offers visitors alluring surroundings and rooms to rent for getaways.

Given Garth Newel’s relative isolation and the nature of the organization’s work, each member of the quartet and staff of about 10 have a hand in sundry facets of daily operations.

“It’s become a part of what we do as artists and as committed members of the staff,” says Teresa Ling, who joined the quartet as its violinist in 1998. This includes performing and hiring guest artists, writing up contracts, rehearsing and teaching, as well as advertising, grant writing and fundraising, she says.

Managing such varied tasks and being cloistered between the Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs and the Omni Homestead Resort still leaves most quartet members time to maintain performance activity outside of Garth Newel. Ling has a gig coming up in Roanoke, pianist Jeannette Fang is engaged in new music work, cellist Isaac Melamed makes San Francisco sojourns to perform and violist Evelyn Grau has played across the globe.

Performing between 50 and 60 times a year, the piano quartet strives to introduce a unique strain of music to sometimes-uninitiated audiences in Virginia and around the country.

“Red Vesper,” a piece planned for inclusion at the quartet’s Richmond performance at Agecroft Hall, will also count works by Johannes Brahms and Paul Moravec.

“It can translate to different audiences,” Fang says about the David Biedenbender piece. “It’s one that’s accessible to people who may not have grown up listening to classical music.”

She describes it as having a minimalist background and accessible tonal range. “It doesn’t have many chord changes or clashes,” she says. “It’s rhythmically exciting; it grabs your attention. Structurally, he’s thinking in terms more of a pop medium and he’s carrying that to a more intellectual language.”

The language, no matter to whom it may be aimed, might be musical. But it also might be instructive.

“I think that we’re all committed to music education and music appreciation for all types of people,” she says. “The emerging artist program ... was the flagship of Garth Newel.

The center also offers ways to engage people who aren’t looking for a career in music, she adds: “We had a workshop for amateur musicians. They were all adults who do completely different things for their day jobs, but have this intense love of chamber music.”

The center’s programming, which occasionally includes forays into pairing performances with food, wine and beer, purposefully knocks some of the haughtiness out of a class of music that most Americans only hear accompanying the credits at the end of films or in commercials. But that doesn’t supplant the simplicity of merely chatting with inquisitive concertgoers.

“One of the best things, for me, is discovering the way it works — the way the performers interact with audience,” Fang says about taking time after concerts to engage with fans. “It really bolsters the audience and helps people appreciate the music more. There isn’t a separation and you get to know the people who play the music.” S

The Garth Newel Piano Quartet plays Agecroft Hall on Sunday, April 24, at 5 p.m. Free. Visit garthnewel.org or agecrofthall.com.



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