Brentano quartet by juergen frank 2016 12 b422ul

Imagine a super complicated network of different lines all running together, balanced like a delicate musical ecosystem. Now add a play, some dancers, a cats-cradle sculpture and a dash of Carl Sagan and you’ve got the Brentano String Quartet’s Art of Fugue project. 

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Art of Fugue, written in the 1740s, is a legend. Technically, it takes one simple theme and blows it out into 14 different fugues, four canons, two minor fugues and part of a quadruple fugue. Bach never finished it, so there’s lore around it, as well—what instrument did he want to play it? Was it ever even supposed to be performed?

“It all started because we love this music,” says Mark Steinberg, the first violinist in the Brentano String Quartet. “It’s amazing what Bach was able to do, but it’s also a lot to ask listeners to listen to. Bach didn’t really conceive of it as a piece of music that anyone would ever sit down and listen to all at once.”

So Steinberg came up with the idea of adding media to Art of Fugue. He wanted audiences to feel like they were part of the fugue themselves, to show new angles to an ancient musical puzzle. In the outcome of his project, which Da Camera of Houston presents March 3, the Brentano Quartet navigates Bach’s fugal maze along with readings from Carl Sagan and Lewis Carroll, a play written in fugal form by Itamar Moses (that the quartet performs themselves). Finally, there’s a giant set of woven lines, created by Gabriel Calatrava, that dancers manipulate and dance through.

“It’s helping people understand what a fugue is, not just in an intellectual way, but how we relate it in our lives, how we interact in the world,” Steinberg says. “Breaking up the music a little bit breaks up the fugue (and gives) different analogies to invite people into the fugue—a fresh experience.”

And Steinberg should know. The Brentano String Quartet—comprised of Steinberg, violinist Serena Canin, violist Mish Amory, and cellist Nina Lee—has been together since 1992 (and in its current configuration since 1998). Their repertoire runs the gamut from really old music (think Monty Python Holy Grail madrigals here) to music by composers alive today—so, super new music—like Hungarian wizard György Kurtág.

“From the very beginning, we’ve loved working with a lot of composers, not because it’s an obligation, but because it’s fun,” Steinberg says. 

By combining art forms here, Steinberg is also taking an age-old gamble. Multi-media work has high philosophical stakes that seem, well, archaic today, from debates about whether sight or sound was of the higher celestial order to how theatre and dance should fit into something that represented the soul. In this project, though, the focus is really on making the audience connect.

“It’s a risk,” Steinberg admits. “But one of the dancers said to me that she really enjoyed being a part of it…(because) this is the first time dance was there to serve the music.”

With all the different angles on this already-wild Fugue, Steinberg has just one goal in mind, “That for each audience member there will be one moment in the evening that will be the ‘aha’ moment, the ‘I feel like I’m part of it now.’”

Friday, March 3 at 8. Da Camera of Houston, Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-524-5050. dacamera.com

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