At Richmond’s Art Garage in the increasingly trendy West Brookland Park neighborhood, violist Danielle Wiebe Burch is tearing into “The Three Gs” by Portland composer Kenji Bunch.
A thrilling combination of classical sonorities and engaging hooks, the song is both instantly approachable and continuously surprising. It’s the perfect jumpstart for Richmond-based string quartet Rosette’s latest So Hot Right Now series, which features five concerts of Bunch’s music in five venues [the first performance already sold out on March 6 at the Richmond Art Garage].
“The intent is to instantly give the audiences a taste of his style and leave them wanting more,” says Rosette violinist Ellen Cockerham Riccio.
Violist and composer Bunch is the perfect target for Richmond’s genre-crossing string quartet. His mix-master works blend styles from baroque to hip-hop, spiced with the unmistakable tang of bluegrass. The foundation remains classical; there isn’t much of a viola tradition in any other genre. But the way the music is played –with percussive bow chops and finger drumming on the instrument –powers into a percussive groove all its own.
Riccio was aware of Bunch from their shared roots in Portland, Oregon. “I’d heard his name, but I hadn’t actually heard his music,” she says.
All that changed when a violist performed Bunch’s solo “The Three Gs” at one of her free-range chamber music Classical Incarnation series performances.
“I just thought it was so cool,” she recalls. “I had this big stupid grin on my face the whole time they were playing. It’s just so rocking and grooving and doing things that you didn’t think a viola could do and be.”
After the solo opener, the quartet comes out to play “Apocryphal Dances,” a playfully self-aware meditation in a melodic architecture airy enough for modernity to breeze through.
“[Bunch] writes that this is just intended to be 12 minutes of good clean fun for an audience and musician,” Riccio explains. “It isn’t strictly in the style of 17th century French dance music, but it is inspired by it. He mixes styles in a really amazing way, throwing in a blues chord, a bit of jazz rhythm, or the dissonance of modern pop music.”
The five-part, 15-minute piece begins solemnly before brightening into a Provencal folk dance and then, in the third section, evoking Celtic longing. Spirited plucking propels the next section with Appalachian-tinged bowing over a repeated drone. The finale has the bright certainty of a Mozart piece, albeit spiced with unconventional galloping percussion on the back of the viola. It’s such a charming piece, it’s surprising that before this session the only public record was the 2017 debut performance by the 49th Parallel in a Portland church.
“The score wasn’t published at all until I asked to perform it [for] this series,” Ricco points out. “[Bunch] said, ‘I have been meaning to do this for a long time and this will finally give me a reason.’ So, that’s kind of cool.”
The final piece, “String Cycle,” brings both Rosette and Burke together with doubled violins and violas. “If you know classical music, you know the best music is written for quintet,” Ricco says. “The extra viola adds so much.”
“Cycle” draws on Bunch’s experience playing in a bluegrass band. While studying at The Julliard School in New York, he responded to a classified ad looking for a fiddler. “At the time he had no experience with the style,” Riccio notes. “But he was the only person who auditioned who had his own violin and could read music.” So he learned on the stage, from the inside out.
Reflecting that immersion, “String Cycle” starts with bluegrass fiddling, shifting in the next movement to Texas swing. Then there is a percussive “Porch Picking” pizzicato section, where the notes of the melody move from player to player before shifting into contrapuntal voices with the viola briefly strummed like a ukulele. The finishing is a flourish of intense, joyous funk.
Because this is unfamiliar if highly engaging music, each piece in the hour-long program is relatively short and logically focused. The repetition of performances in not just for a wider audience, but to allow for repeat attendance. “That’s the grand experiment of this series,” Riccio says.
Unless you’re familiar with these composers, it’s always music that you don’t know.
“It’s kind of exciting to see people coming for the first time, because really they don’t know what to expect, but it’s awesome that they’re interested,” she says. “Then, performing the same thing multiple times, people can have another chance. Your mind can relax because it has some concept of what is coming. You start to look forward to your favorite parts.”
There is a common misperception that music was softer and more genteel in the past – as if the past was a faded version of the present. But in an intimate setting, chamber music has the punch of heavy metal and an emotional resonance all its own. There are multiple chances to hear Kenji Bunch’s modern take on the form, in great venues during March. Based on the brilliant debut, missing all of them seems something like carelessness.
Here are the remaining performances:
Friday, March 18 at 7 p.m.(doors at 6:30 p.m.) at Candela Gallery 214 W. Broad St. Free.
Concert Sponsors: Kerry Mills and Pippin Barnett
Tuesday, March 22 at 7 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.) at Spacebomb Studios, 106 S. Robinson St. Free, BYOB. Proof of vaccination required.
Concert Sponsors: Richmond Art Garage
Sunday, March 27 at 8 p.m. (doors at 7 p.m.) at The Dark Room, 2818 W. Broad St., 2nd floor. $10
Concert Sponsors: Michael and Nancy Lott
Wednesday, March 30 at 7 p.m. (doors at 6:30 p.m.) at Reveille United Methodist Church, 4200 Cary Street Rd. Free
Concert Sponsors: Reveille United Methodist Church