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DW Jazz Concerts: Richie Beirach and the Sirius Quartet

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
February 12, 2023

In this episode, we present a concert with the American jazz pianist Richie Beirach and the New York City-based Sirius Quartet.

Richie Beirach
Richie Beirach : a legendary jazz pianistImage: Sven Thielmann/IMAGO

DW Jazz Concerts: Richie Beirach and the Sirius Quartet

More often than not, musicians experiment with different kinds of music, blurring the lines between classical, jazz, pop, rock and other ethnic and traditional musical genres. So if a jazz musician plays classical music, what distinguishes both genres?

US jazz pianist Richie Beirach, who plays with the Sirius Quartet in this program, has an answer: "Jazz is the essence of what is improvised, with passion, energy and great sentiment. And classical music is written and has the same goals: to be great music. And all the great composers were known to be great improvisers, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt." Beirach spoke to DW on the sidelines of the 2021 Jazzfest in Bonn.

And true to what Beirach says,  we'll be listening to improvised versions of Bach, Beethoven and the Spanish composer Federico Mompou in this episode.

The solo pianist

Beirach is a pianist, composer, author and teacher who currently lives in Germany, but is originally from New York. According to his own bio on his website, he was born in 1947 and began learning to play the piano when he was just five years old.

In 1967, he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but returned to New York after a year, choosing to pursue a master's degree in music at the Manhattan School of Music. In the following years, he played with jazz legends like saxophonists Stan Getz, Dave Liebman and Chet Baker, and jazz guitarists John Scofield and John Abercrombie.

Beirach released his first album in 1976. It was called "Eon," a composition he created together with drummer Eliot Zigmund and bassist Frank Tusa. His first solo album, titled "Hubris," was released a year later.

In the next decade, Beirach focused more on playing the solo piano and with Dave Liebman for their band, Quest, which they formed in 1981. Their recorded albums include "Quest," "Midpoint: Live at the Montmartre" and "Natural Selection."

In recent times, the artist has focused more on improvising classical music pieces, which he does with aplomb together with musicians Gregor Hübner and bassist George Mraz.

Violinist Gregor Hübner also features in this program, as part of the Sirius Quartet, which also includes fellow violinist Fung Chern Hwei, Ron Lawrence on the viola and Jeremy Harman on the cello. The group says on its website that it prides itself on "pushing beyond the conventional vocabulary of string instruments by incorporating popular song forms" and using extended techniques and improvisations to create contemporary grooves.

What you'll be listening to

Here's a quick run-up of what you'll be hearing in this program, which was recorded at the 2021 Jazzfest Bonn.

Coming up first is a track called "Es ist genug," based on a work by 18th-century German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.

That is followed by two more examples of Beirach and the Sirius Quartet's musical innovations. First, we'll listen to the "Beat Beethoven Project," which was originally planned for the Beethoven year in Bonn in 2020 and takes its cue from a composition by the maestro. The second composition you'll hear is called "Paths Become Lines," composed by the Quartet's cellist, Jeremy Harman.

Next, we take a trip to Spain and listen to an improvised piece by Federico Mompou. Mompou was born in Barcelona in 1893 and died in 1987. For the following composition, the musicians use two pieces from "Musica Callada" and one from "Impresiones Intimas."

From Spain, we take a trip to the US, to the land of a great jazz legend. We'll listen to Beirach and the Sirius Quartet playing John Coltrane's "Transitions." The album was released in 1970, after the saxophonist, tenor and composer's death. Coltrane's wide knowledge of different kinds of music and his studies in classical music, world music and Indian classical music traditions make him an obvious choice for Richie Beirach and the Sirius Quartet's repertoire.

In the next section, we go back to classical music and listen to two compositions, "Andantino," by the Tbilisi-born Soviet composer, Aram Khachaturian. The composer was a contemporary of Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom were denounced by the Soviet regime for their music that was at odds with official policy. Khachaturian, on the other hand, seems to have left a mixed legacy and has also been quoted as being thankful to the Soviet leadership for helping him create good music.

The next piece is called "Drei Bagatellen," by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. According to Sirius Quartet's Gregor Huebner, the music is a selection from the 14 "Bagatelles" that the composer wrote for piano. The last composition for this episode is by Richie Beirach and is called "Rectilinear."

That's all in this edition of DW Jazzfest hosted by Manasi Gopalakrishnan. The show was produced by Thomas Schmidt and Christian Stäter, and with editorial support from Anastassia Boutsko. DW and Jazzfest Bonn own all rights to the music recorded at this concert in Bonn, 2021.

If you have any questions, feedback or suggestions related to the program, do send them to us at music@dw.com.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.