The Rush Hour concerts began 20 years ago as a brief respite of music between the end of the Chicago workday and the beginning of a warm summer evening. The International Music Foundation (IMF), the organization putting on these concerts, knew that government coronavirus rules wouldn’t allow in-person concerts and set out to see what could be done instead with their summer series.

They had two obvious choices, the same choices that most organizations have today: present encore presentations, via video, of previous concerts, or, create new concerts online. The latter offers the opportunity to make music now, but still has a problem: social distancing rules make it difficult to produce concerts which feature more than just a few performers.

So IMF turned to family ensembles. Such groups are already living together, already playing together, and can continue to play together indefinitely. While this particular cottage industry may not be large, it appears that the IMF is on to something.

Are there many family ensembles in Chicago? IMF found a great one to kick off this summer: the Chen String Quartet, which has been making music together for six years.

The Chen String Quartet is composed of two parents and two children. First in the lineup is first violin Robert Chen. He’s been the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1999, making him one of our city’s leading violinists. His wife Laura Chen is a veteran of the first violin section of both the Lyric Opera Orchestra and the Grant Park Orchestra. Their children make up the rest of the quartet, with Beatrice Chen on viola and Noah Chen on cello. Both teenagers are students at pre-college programs at two of the top U.S. music schools: Beatrice at the Curtis Institute of Music and Noah at the Juilliard School Pre-College.

The concert was streamed from the Chen family’s living room, a cozy setting giving the viewer a peek at some of their artwork as well as the grand piano at the back of the room. There was a single, fixed camera which was well placed and the sound quality, while not perfect, was generally strong enough to make all quartet voices clear and audible.

The Chen String Quartet opened their concert with Lyric for Strings (1946) by George Walker (1922–2018). Walker was the first African-American musician to win the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Walker’s Lyric for Strings began as the second movement of a string quartet, so it was pleasing to hear the music for the original four voices, rather than a string orchestra.

Lyric for Strings was misty and moody, immersed in pain. The family quartet offered a soulful performance with long, aching lines and mournful harmonies. The blending was good and the voices were each clear.

Schubert’s Quartett-Satz is a single movement from a string quartet the composer never finished. The Chen family dove into it with gusto, drawing excitement and energy from the music. Robert Chen’s powerful opening work pulled you in and never let you go. The playing was robust and exuberant.

Their concert closed with Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint. Price was the first African American woman to have a classical composition performed by a major U.S. Orchestra. In June of 1933 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony No. 1 in E minor in a concert that took place during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibition.

The quartet presented the fascinating harmonies and provided delicate and detailed work. They weaved expertly through the various moods, from haunting melodies to frisky dances.

“Calvary” was taut and featured nice work from the viola. “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine” developed interesting, unexpected harmonies. “Drink to Me with Thine Own Eyes” featured unexpected shifts of emphasis that were fascinating. 

For quirky and spunky, you cannot beat “Shortnin’ Bread” which was given a lively and loving reading.

The final folk song of the five is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I wonder if Price would have been surprised by not the durability of this song, which is deeply moving with a basic melody that reposes easily in memory, but by its subsequent popularity with audiences who may know nothing of its past as a spiritual. Right now there’s a debate raging in Britain over the song, with Prince Harry and Boris Johnson among those who have offered an opinion on its use.

The song has been sung by rugby fans for over 50 years. The U.K.’s Rugby Football Union, has recently said it will review the use of the song by fans, with Prince Harry supporting the review. The British prime minister, on the other hand, opposes the ban. Martin Offiah, a black rugby player and member of the hall of fame for that sport, supports continued use of the song and believes it should be a springboard for teaching fans about Black history as well as racial discrimination.

Price’s arrangement of the spiritual is masterful and full of marvelous flights of fancy, which the Chen String Quartet realized with aplomb. The arrangement is complex and the players teased out those complexities and reveled in the ultimate joy and triumph of the conclusion.

The Rush Hour Concert featured Robbie Ellis as a host, speaking with the musicians before each piece. It is good to hear from players, but this particular format was dull and unedifying. We heard the completely expected answer from the kids about what happened at school: they were sent home, grades were messed up, and online classes were a bit disorganized.

The unrehearsed chat format rarely yields much of interest, particularly when limited to a couple of minutes at a gulp. Better would be less superficial questions, asked well in advance, so that those answering might give more interesting, thought out replies.

The online program notes were very good, and some online presenters skimp on this element. But why Nadia Boulanger (who was one of George Walker’s teachers) was described as “infamous” I cannot tell you.

The Chen String Quartet returns to the Rush Hour Concert series on Aug. 11 when they will perform Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet with clarinetist Stephen Williamson. For more information on all of this season’s rush hour concerts, visit IMFchicago.org.

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