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Del Sol Quartet and didgeridooist Stephen Kent find common ground at UD

By Megan Constable

Photo: Del Sol Quartet’s (l-r) violinst Benjamin Kreith, violinist Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates; photo: RJ Muna

Not many people have heard the elegant sounds of a string quartet accompanied by a didgeridoo. The University of Dayton is about to change that by hosting the Del Sol String Quartet along with master didgeridooist Stephen Kent as a part of its ArtsLIVE program.

UD’s ArtsLIVE program was started in 1961 in hopes that artists from different cultures around the globe would share their craft with Daytonians. With the mix of a string quartet, which is credited to Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, and a didgeridoo, a long wind instrument developed by indigenous Australians, ArtsLive is living up to its intentions.

The San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet, now in their 25th season, consists of violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates. The group’s focus is on bringing more attention to contemporary classical artists by selecting newer compositions and commissioning original works.

The quartet first met master didgeridooist Stephen Kent at the 2006 Other Minds Festival in San Francisco where they played a piece by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe.

“We have been friends ever since and also shared a passion for Sculthorpe’s music, which culminated in the recording of the complete string quartet and didgeridoo pieces,” Charlton Lee says.

Kent is originally from England and has a background in a more traditional instrument, the French horn. At one point in his career, Kent joined a circus in Australia where he learned how to play the didgeridoo.

“[Kent] has [played the didgeridoo] for decades and is one of the premier players of that instrument, especially outside of Australia,” Lee says.

Learning the ins and outs of the didgeridoo is quite a feat, even for a skilled musician. Playing the instrument requires a mastery of circular breathing, a special technique that requires the player to breathe in through their nose while simultaneously releasing stored air from their mouth.

With Kent’s help, the Del Sol String Quartet aims to bring the environmentalist message of Sculthorpe’s “Earth Cry” to Dayton. The four-part suite explores climate change and how it affects the Earth.

“This is a program with music that seems very abstract but is inspired by the composer’s concern about the fragility of the landscape, the fragility of the world,” says ArtsLIVE coordinator Eileen Carr. “We think about Australia as a very rugged, indestructible place, but, in fact, like every place on the Earth, it has its own fragile ecosystem.”

As with Stephen Kent, The Del Sol String Quartet first crossed paths with Sculthorpe at a festival where they were able to work with him on his pieces. Sculthorpe, who passed away in 2014, was not only concerned about climate change, but political justice, and Australian history and culture.

“We completely fell in love with his music,” Lee says. “[We] discovered that the pieces that he wrote for quartet for didgeridoo had never been recorded, and so we went on to record the entire four pieces, and it’s been quite a journey. The emotional and social content of the music has been a very powerful experience for us to share with audiences.”

There aren’t many composers out there daring enough to pair a didgeridoo with a string ensemble, but Sculthorpe’s “Earth Cry” is considered a classic.

“The sounds [Sculthorpe] creates between didgeridoo and the string quartet are really unique and quite magical,” Lee says.

“We hope that other composers will be intrigued by the possibilities of this combination of sounds and write more pieces in the future,” he adds.

“Earth Cry” is not only an interesting piece of music, it relates to the troubled social climate and physical characteristics of Sculthorpe’s homeland, a topic deeply personal to the composer, made relatable through the music’s sense of adventure.

The first two pieces focus on the environment, the next explores the arrival of refugees in Australia during the Afghan War, and the last piece will follow an old story Sculthorpe’s father used to tell him. The story takes place on a bluff, where a group of aborigines were driven to the edge and given the choice to jump or be shot. They chose to jump.

“Sculthorpe was very optimistic about our chances of redemption, despite all of the darkness,” Lee says. “He wrote about all of these very heavy topics, but always felt that at the end of the day, there was a chance for us to find a way, somehow, to be more selfless.”

 

Del Sol Quartet and Stephen Kent will perform ‘Earth Cry’ Thursday, March 16 at Sears Recital Hall, 300 College Park Ave. in Dayton. The Del Sol Quartet will introduce the piece at 6:45 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30. Tickets are $16. For tickets or more information, please call 937.229.2545 or visit Go.UDayton.edu/ArtLive. For more on the Del Sol Quartet, please visit DelSolQuartet.com. For more information on Stephen Kent, please visit StephenKent.net.

 

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Megan Constable
Reach DCP freelance writer Megan Constable at MeganConstable@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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