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French Impressionism myths: Apollo Chamber Players concert defies expectations

French Impressionism myths: Apollo Chamber Players concert defies expectations

Telling popular, folk and classical music apart from one another isn't rocket science. Or is it?

Apparently you need expensive degrees from major education institutions to be able to do so accurately. Sure, anyone could take the I-know-it-when-I-hear-it approach, but be prepared to be proven wrong. Distinguishing genres increases in difficulty when artists across disciplines are inspired by each other and when time blurs provenance and historical context.

Who knows? What is now classical music could have been the "Single Ladies" meme of the 19th century.

The Apollo Chamber Players, a homegrown string quartet, loves nothing more than to explore where one tradition ends, another begins and the gray area where they tickle each other. It's something three of the members — Matthew Detrick, Timothy Peters and Matthew Dudzik — have been doing since they were pupils at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music The fourth, Matthew Carrington, has a diploma from Indiana University.

On Sunday at 4 p.m. at Shepherd, the ensemble will close its fourth season with "Folk Colorings of the Impressionist Masters." The quartet chose to perform at Rice as an acknowledgement of the school's big impact in the musicians' careers, while honoring the college's upcoming centennial.

 "We think of Impressionism as classical music's most relaxing moments," Peters explains. "It's been really interesting for us to uncover how many different influences were under this subheading of Impressionism."

On the playbill are works by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie that explore influences of composers working in the late 19th and early 20th century in France, and dispel myths about stereotypes of the period's sound.

Breaking news: Not everything in French Impressionist music is pretty, smoky and cottony like Debussy's Clair de Lune or Gabriel Fauré's Pavane. Many compositions are quite busy, loaded with black notes and infused with melodic lines juxtaposed with more than one layer of counterpoint.

"We think of Impressionism as classical music's most relaxing moments," Peters explains. "It's been really interesting for us to uncover how many different influences were under this subheading of Impressionism, and how many varying sounds you can get from one style and one period of time."

While Debussy was swayed by Eastern sounds, pentatonic scales, whole-tone tonalities, Russian folklore and Gamelan, Ravel's compositional style is awash in the Spanish airs of the Basque region, though he used similar chords. And Satie's works are whimsically sardonic. 

That was the catalyst for this "Art and About" video adventure (above). Camera and microphone on hand, I stepped into an Apollo Chamber Players rehearsal and got the skinny on "Folk Colorings on the Impressionist Masters."

Want more music? Take a listen at Apollo Chamber Players play through the complete first movement of Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor.

Here's Apollo's own arrangement of a French chanson, "La Boheme."

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Apollo Chamber Players Matthew Detrick, Timothy Peters, Matthew Dudzik and Matthew Carrington. Photo by Joel Luks
Apollo Chamber Players
On Sunday at 4 p.m. at Shepherd, the Apollo Chamber Players will close its fourth season with "Folk Colorings of the Impressionist Masters." Photo by Chris Detrick