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Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Co-commissions New Works from Turtle Island Quartet

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Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Co-commissions New Works from Turtle Island Quartet

The Turtle Island Quartet

Special promotional content provided by Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. 

Turtle Island Quartet derives its name from the borrowed name for North America, based on many creation myths of the Indigenous people who have been in the United States for millennia. In this context, Turtle Island is a place or idea where traditions and cultures merge into a gorgeous, cohesive, compelling mosaic that happens most naturally in music. On Friday, March 22, Turtle Island Quartet will present its musical mosaic including four new works at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, Emerson Concert Hall. 

Since its inception in 1985, the quartet—resident composer and violinist David Balakrishnan, violinist Gabriel Terracciano, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, and cellist Naseem Alatrash—has been a singular force in the creation of new trends in chamber music for strings, as their signature style has fused jazz, American roots and innovative string techniques. Winners of the 2006 and 2008 Grammy Awards for Best Classical Crossover Album, Turtle Island has merged classical with contemporary American musical styles. And now, they begin a new adventure, transitioning from an ensemble that primarily features a variety of arranged works to one that commissions and creates original music. 

“When we started thinking of how to best announce this renewed identity for the quartet to the world, we knew that the statement had to be on a grand scale, and that the voices needed to be both artistically expansive and revered,” says David Balakrishnan, Turtle Island composer and violinist. “My piece, The Second Wave, had just been recorded for Terence Blanchard’s Blue Note release Absence, and Terence’s unwavering support of my writing gave me the confidence to imagine a return to the original vision of Turtle Island Quartet—a group that performed my original music, along with other original works by jazz and American roots composers.”

The March 22 program, Island Prayers, is a major statement in this realm. The project is an ambitious, multi-composer extravaganza co-commissioned by the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Meany Performing Arts Center, The Music Hall (Portsmouth NH), and Savannah Music Hall. Island Prayers features new works written by six-time Grammy Award–winner and double Oscar Award–nominee Terence Blanchard; MacArthur Genius fellow, singer, and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens; New Music USA composer-in-residence and Joyce Award winner Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate; and the quartet’s founder David Balakrishnan

About the commissioned composers, Balakrishnan shares that “all three voices naturally coalesce around a broader idea: that for the highest achieving individuals, ‘classical music’ is now no longer confined to traditional expectations, even in its original forms. It was intentional that we found one voice each to represent jazz, folkloric, and new music, but that each voice had broad stylistic influences beyond the preconceived limits of their genre, in this case ranging from West African, Caribbean, and indigenous cultures. What we wanted to show is that even these three primary stylistic pillars, which all happen to find their way in my writing as well, were not contained to one exclusive artistic or cultural subset.”

The program Island Prayers came from Balakrishnan’s revelation that the deep connection live performance has to the human psyche is only paralleled by spiritual practice—it is through both the rituals of performing arts and spiritual celebration that our most profound and meaningful human characteristics are engaged: community, reflection, and collective imagination. Tickets for Island Prayers are available online at schwartz.emory.edu, or by visiting or calling the Schwartz Center Box Office at 404-727-5050, Monday–Friday, 12 p.m.–6p.m. (1700 N. Decatur Rd., Atlanta, GA 30322).