This week and next, people who happen to be shopping for chocolate or dishes on the Church Street Marketplace might find themselves suddenly serenaded by a bit of Ludwig van Beethoven in the next aisle. The Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival, a four-week summer music academy for string students at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, often pops into Burlington for free public performances. These “Classical Encounters,” as the 19-year-old festival calls them, typically feature the students in chamber groups performing brief concerts in stores and other venues in downtown Burlington.
This year, in addition to its 13 scheduled Encounters, the festival has upped the game with two Quartet Hops. Artistic director Liz Chang and general manager Amanda Stenroos have dedicated two Saturdays to free, public mini concerts that occur every 45 minutes or so between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Audiences can linger in a single store to enjoy the unexpected sound of bows on strings or walk comfortably from one performance to the next. (Some occur simultaneously.)
On Saturday, Seven Days caught up with the first hop, the Downtown Burlington/Church Street Quartet Hop, which covered the area roughly between Cherry and Battery streets. The reprise South End Quartet Hop happens this Saturday, July 15, along the art-industrial Pine Street corridor, home of the annual South End Art Hop — the inspiration for Chang and Stenroos’ idea.
The first stop on Saturday morning was Muddy Waters. The Main Street café’s tables were filled with quiet coffee drinkers at 10 a.m. The chamber quartet occupied the front space beside the windows, just beyond which two homeless individuals slept outside.
The musicians introduced themselves over the drone of coffee machines in the back. The festival’s 183 students this year range in age from 13 to 32; these four were college and master’s students.
Next, they gave some background on Felix Mendelssohn, whose String Quartet No. 4 in E Minor they were about to perform — or at least three of its movements. Mendelssohn was 28 when he composed the work during his honeymoon in Germany’s Black Forest, they explained. The patrons listened politely to the intro and music alike, and one solo coffee drinker put down his book and rested his head on a hand to listen.
After the applause, that patron — who introduced himself as Raimi, 18, from Brooklyn — told Seven Days that he had been coming to Muddy Waters every morning he could while spending his summer farming at the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps in Richmond.
Already a fan of the shop, Raimi didn’t know about the performance ahead of time, but when it started, he said, “I thought, Of course this coffee shop is going to have amazing live music.” He added that he texted his mother during the music to joke that he was moving in.
While handing out copies of the Quartet Hop schedule, Stenroos announced the next venue: Homeport, a much bigger and busier locale on the Marketplace. There, at 10:45 a.m., a new quartet (one of the violinists was the same) was set up in a floor space flanked by tall shelves of dishes, napkins and glassware. Patrons traversed the nearby stairs, some sitting on the steps to take in Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor.
Debussy just slays this reporter, who forgot to notice anything amid the work’s waves of swelling emotion — until the first violinist’s last bow flourish dinked a glass on the shelves behind her, adding a perfectly timed final note amid general laughter and applause.
On to City Hall Park, where two quartets of the festival’s fellows were scheduled to give half-hour concerts under a tent opposite the busy splash fountain. The fellows, a new part of the festival this year, are fully funded doctoral and semiprofessional students who also teach and perform twice a week with the faculty in public concerts at St. Mike’s Elley-Long Music Center. They will give their own concert on Saturday, July 22, at the College Street Congregational Church in Burlington.
We found three members of the second fellows’ quartet playing cornhole on the lawn, completely unconcerned that they were about to perform a difficult new piece by Kian Ravaei. (They later played it with striking precision, each instrument miked to overcome the passing sirens and general hubbub.) Ravaei, a 25-year-old California-based composer, studied with Richard Danielpour and others. His string quartet Family Photos, inspired by Persian folk music, won second place in the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival’s Call for Scores contest— another new festival feature.
Habitués of the summer festival scene, the three fellows assessed the festival as “big for its kind” and focused on improvement through practice. (Students are required to practice solo for four hours every morning.) Might they end up a bona fide quartet by the end of the festival? They said no, but they had heard about the four high schoolers who first played together at the 2021 festival and went on to win the junior division of the prestigious Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition in May as the FaMa Quartet.
Violist Devin Cowan is about to start his doctorate at the University of Colorado Boulder. Asked if he thought classical music performances were likely to become more like the Quartet Hop, with partial pieces performed in unusual venues, he said the mode was actually true to the original intent of chamber music.
“This music was written to be performed at parties with no one really listening,” he said. “It’s just beautiful songs.”