Decatur’s leading acoustic music room, Eddie’s Attic, goes “classical” on Tuesday, July 17, when the Riverside Chamber Players will take the stage to perform string quartet music by their composer-in-residence, Michael Kurth. The quartet — violinists Kenn Wagner and Jay Christy, violist Wesley Collins and cellist Joel Dallow — are all also members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, as is composer Kurth, who is one of the orchestra’s contrabass players. The Roswell-based quartet made its debut in 2003.
“The stuff on this program tends toward the lighter side, short character pieces with pop song forms,” says Kurth. His titles often reveal that inclination: “Boogie Alarm,” “Henry and the Happy Beat,” “The Road Will Mesmerize You.” Sometimes Kurth’s music plays upon a traditional American tune, as in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Variations on Be Thou My Vision.” He also occasionally draws from Latin American inspirations such as tango, as in “Mean Old Pony Tango” and “Torcedura Azul” (“Blue Twist”). (Anyone who wants an audio preview can go to Kurth’s Facebook page and stream the tunes.) Riverside will also perform Kurth’s transcription of “Bells of the Solstice” by Richard Clegg and his arrangement of Chip Taylor’s classic rock ‘n’ roll song “Wild Thing.”
Kurth became the group’s composer-in-residence in 2010. “I had been writing and arranging duets for Joel and I to play for ASO outreach events for students,” he recalls. “He really liked one in particular, the ‘Mean Old Pony Tango,’ and asked if I had a quartet arrangement of it. I gave him one, and a few other pieces which he liked also.” That led led to Kurth’s first Riverside commission, “Easy Listening.” After its successful premiere, he was asked to be composer-in-residence.
“This is a great opportunity for us to go play at Eddie’s Attic,” says Dallow, who is also the group’s artistic director. “They’re trying to start something that’s a little more classically based. We might be the first group to do something [there] like that in many years.”
The Attic experimented with classical music as early as 2003, when roving cellist Matt Haimovitz persuaded the venue to let him play three of Bach’s solo cello suites in a early-evening show. Riverside will be the first classical act to perform at the Attic since it was purchased late last year by Alex Cooley and Dave Mattingly.
In April, Cooley hired Andrew Hingley to work alongside founder Eddie Owen. After Owen’s sudden departure in May, Hingley was left in the driver’s seat for booking acts. Serendipitously, Collins used to be a neighbor of Hingley’s and approached him several months ago about booking Riverside.
Hingley took the idea to Cooley, a classical music fan himself, who was delighted and gave the go-ahead not only to book the Riverside Chamber Players but to test the waters further by booking classical music once a month to see whether it can build traction with audiences. To that end, Hingley has also signed internationally recognized violist Jennifer Stumm to perform in early September. Stumm, a native Atlantan, is familiar with the Attic from having attended shows there.
As another plus for classical fans, Hingley gives a significant nod to the Attic’s house sound engineer, Shalom Aberle. “He can get a sound out of Eddie’s Attic that no other sound engineer can get,” says Hingley. “I’m 100 percent confident that anyone coming to see a classical performance at Eddie’s Attic under his watch will never walk out saying ‘that didn’t sound right.’ I think he’ll exceed everybody’s expectations.”
Leading up to Tuesday’s concert, the chamber players recorded Kurth’s music last week in the studios of the Murray Arts Center at Mount Paran Christian School, with recording engineer Tim Jones and second engineer Carey Durham. “We spent the last three days in rehearsal, assembling the tricky rhythms and adjusting dynamics,” Kurth says. Then the group spent two days in the studio laying down audio for future release as an independently produced CD, to be made available both on disc and as a digital download.