T he Haven String Quartet’s upcoming “Out of Africa, Into Europe” concert is not the journey you’d imagine. The concert (Feb. 25 at the Unitarian Society of New Haven, then March 6 at SCSU) features the rhythmic “Mu Kkuybo Ery Omusallaba” by Ugandan composer Justinian Tamusuza and “White Man Sleeps” by post-modernist Kevin Volans (who was born in South Africa and now lives in Ireland), capped by Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” for strings and prerecorded tapes. All three pieces reflect a desire for varied cultures—and musical styles—to come together and harmonize.
Tamusuza, Volans and Reich have all been championed by that most progressive of string ensembles, The Kronos Quartet. But they’ll doubtless sound different when performed by the Haven String Quartet. Few classical ensembles are more attuned to the specific environment and the circumstances of each concert. Few are more accessible, or more responsive to the needs of the communities they serve.
The Haven String Quartet doesn’t just get together for concerts. It’s the center of Music Haven, which runs after-school music programs at the John C. Daniels and Cellist Matt Beckmann, who joined the ensemble just last year, says “It’s unusual that a string quartet is rooted [via extensive community outreach] in one area. Most are either based at a university, or touring and
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playing the same program over and over.” Not only does the Haven String Quartet go into the public schools, it presents numerous public concerts a year. The quartet has also played live scores to silent film screenings, backed vocalists and even accompanied a planetarium show.
For violinist Tina Lee Hadari—founder of both the Haven String Quartet and Music Haven—“It’s all about mature respect, even if the kids are four years old. Hopefully our own members are representative of that respect.”
In a single week last December, the ensemble was seen effortlessly switching gears from their grand community engagements to their intimate, intense efforts as a classical quartet.
At a rehearsal for a big Music Haven holiday concert featuring over 50 students, Hadari asked the kids for examples of “norms” they can follow. “Respect,” says one child. “No distracting,” says another.
A girl named Angel raised her hand: “Don’t play when other people are playing.”
A few days later, the Haven String Quartet
held its usual Tuesday rehearsal in its storefront headquarters on Whalley Avenue nestled amid the fast food chains and dollar stores.
They were playing while other people were playing. They were sitting in a semicircle, in mismatched furniture, rehearsing a tricky modern composition by West Coast minimalist Terry Riley. The quartet was just beginning to develop a communal feel for the piece, and stopped abruptly to discuss its pace and tone. The circumstances could be frustrating , but these four musicians showed the same grace and respect that they promote in their teaching.
According to violinist Yaira Matyakubova, “We’ve tried to stay away from the word ‘Don’t.’ It’s all related to how we want kids to treat their instruments.”
Colin Benn, a violist who like Matyakubova has been a part of Music Haven for three years now, suggests that “on the surface, classical music might seem disciplined. But the act of making music with a violin or cello is so odd. You have the left hand operating separately from the bow. Once you learn that, you can do anything.”
The members of Music Haven have honed their grade school music-teaching abilities to the point where they were acknowledged last year by the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities as one of the top 50 after-school arts programs in the country. Now, without cutting back on their other programs, Music Haven is going to college. Earlier this month, the Haven String Quartet was named Quartet in Residence at Southern Connecticut State University.
“We’re embedded in this community,” declares Colin Benn. “We tackle the traditional repertoire. Then we’re also really open to anything—libraries, schools… Because we do teach, we’re more connected when we do children’s concerts.”
“Playing in New Haven never seems the same,” Matyakubova says. “It can go from very quiet and organized to wild screaming, and food.”
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Kathleen Cei.