Before a Turtle Can Perform…

…we must prepare. Many people experienced an outstanding performance by the Turtle Island Quartet, winners of two Grammy awards and leaders in crossing the jazz and classical lines. They returned to Hope College with jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut on Nov. 9 and the Concert Hall at the Jack H. Miller Center was alive with creativity. But that 7:30 p.m. performance is actually the last part of a very busy day of preparing for the artists and the artists preparing for the performance.

9:00-11:00 a.m. Piano tuning. 

Long-time Hope piano tuner Kelly Bakker knows the instruments well and has tuned thousands of pianos, including many for the legendary artists that have crossed Hope’s stages over the years.

Jack H. Miller stage for Turtle Island
The stage is set according to the technical rider.

11:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Technical Setup.
Technical Director Erik Alberg and Asst. Technical Director David Johnson work on meeting the needs of the technical rider. Although a string quartet, the Turtle Island Quartet is wired for sound. The rider tells Erik everything from what types of chairs they require (piano benches are often favored by cellists), where the chairs should go, and how the technical equipment should be arranged. Erik makes a call on pulling out the back wall to create a sound shell and will adjust the drapes along the walls to either enliven or deaden the sound. The rider gives details, but creating the right balance is an art. Erik has been doing this for a long time with all levels of artists and he has the art part down. In the midst of all this, Drew Elliott, sound engineer for the Music Dept. hops in to make sure all the sound is connected to his software since the quartet has requested a recording of the performance.

Turtle Island Masterclass
Two members of the Grammy-award winning Turtle Island Quartet work with Hope College students.

2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Masterclass.
Before they take the stage, all of our artists connect with the community in different ways. This time, it was a masterclass with two Hope College student ensembles under the direction of faculty member Mihai Craiovneau. A music masterclass typically consists of students performing a prepared piece before an artist and then receiving feedback on their work. There is usually some give and take and the piece always sounds different by the end. Of course, leave it to the Turtles (as they often refer to themselves) to throw a wrench in the normal. Two members of quartet, including founder David Balakrishnan, listened to both a quartet and octet perform. They gave some feedback. And then they went all jazz on them having them work on a piece Balakrishnan wrote and teaching the students how to improvise. String players are not always encouraged to go off the printed page, but in this masterclass, it was a requirement. And the students were clearly enjoying the challenge. At the end, Balakrishnan dubbed them “honorary Turtles.”

“You can tell this is a strong department because the strings are strong. Usually the toughest area,” Balakrishnan commented later.

Turtle Island Soundcheck
Turtle Island Quartet and Cyrus Chestnut during soundcheck (from the Technical Director’s viewpoint)

3:30 – 5:45 p.m. Soundcheck and rehearsal.
With the masterclass done the remaining quartet members arrive with Chestnut for soundcheck and rehearsal. Without fail, our artists are always impressed with how prepared Erik and David are with their requests. As a result, they just have to fine tune the equipment hookups and then quickly get to hearing how it sounds. Again, with our technical staff skills, what could be a two hour process is done quickly, leaving the quartet and Chestnut time to simply rehearse. And they rehearse hard. Some pieces go straight through, but there is a lot of starting and stopping and repeating until they get to where they want.

5:45 – 7:00 p.m. Eat and Change.

Like most artists, the groups goes past their scheduled rehearsal time, but they leave it to find a catered meal in the Music Dept. conference room. Well-fed artists are happy artists, and they eat well. A couple change in the Green Room and others run back and change at the Haworth Inn. While they are doing that the ticket office is opening in the lobby and the ushers are getting last minute directions on what they need to do. CDs are set in the lobby and everything is in place for the doors to open. Members of the group also seek out last minute places to warm up.

7:30 p.m. The Performance.
Finally. As a presenter (my role), this is the best part of the day. The group is introduced and I can sit back and simply enjoy another incredible performance along with 700 friends. And what a performance. The quartet opens with two pieces by themselves and then introduce Chestnut, whose light touch on the keyboard works very well with the quartet. The second half starts with two solo pieces by Chestnut before the quartet joins him. A lot of creativity ensues as the quartet and Chestnut are trying this full length collaboration for the first time. They premiered two pieces, including one they had rehearsed for the first time that afternoon! All members of the ensemble take turns introducing the pieces, which include spiritual works from a variety of backgrounds and provide a personal side to the evening. After a full performance, standing ovation, an encore, and then to the lobby to sign CDs and meet the audience, the quartet and Chestnut headed back for the hotel close to 10:30 p.m.

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