Ebene Quartet: Genre-Bending At WNYC


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The Paris-based Ebene Quartet i

The Paris-based Ebène Quartet mixes pop and jazz pieces into its straight-ahead classical concerts. hide caption

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The Paris-based Ebene Quartet

The Paris-based Ebène Quartet mixes pop and jazz pieces into its straight-ahead classical concerts.

Ebene Quartet at WNYC

Pierre Colombet & Gabriel Magadure, violins; Mathieu Herzog, viola; Raphael Merlin, cello


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Not too long ago, it seemed like the string quartet might have had an image problem: fusty, starched and mired in tradition. But in the past five years or so, we've seen many hip young string quartets storm into our New York studio and head back out into the wide world, bringing with them an attitude, an openness and a versatility that matches their often scary technical ability. Fans of the Kronos Quartet and the Turtle Island Quartet may well say, "Hey, that's not new. Our guys have been doing that for a quarter-century." And they'd be right. But both of those ensembles were exceptions — and perhaps because of their exceptional place in the music world, they didn't play the "standards" of the classical repertoire.

The Ebene Quartet, from Paris, does play the core repertoire. In fact, it plays Debussy and Ravel as if born to it — which, as a French quartet, it probably was. But its members also grew up playing jazz and rock, and when they got together to play string quartets, it occurred to them that they didn't have to stop playing jazz and rock. Thus the name, Ebene (pronounced ay-ben). It's the French word for ebony — the wood used in the fingerboards of their instruments, but also in clarinets (when Stravinsky wrote a jazzy piece featuring clarinet, he called it the Ebony Concerto). As the group told us, the word for them is reminiscent of the great African-American music tradition that they tackle with such obvious relish.

The word is out about the Ebene Quartet — these guys can play anything. Listen to them rip through Dick Dale's surf-rock classic "Miserlou" and then turn on a dime to saunter through a Nat King Cole song. During the interview, I asked whether they found it hard to shift gears between popular music and the classics and got a noncommittal answer. But then they followed the two pop pieces with a final piece from Debussy, and when microphones went off, they readily agreed that that was hard to do.



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