Turtle Island Quartet performing at Emerson Hall, Shwartz Center for Performing Arts, March 22, 2024. (credit: Bill Head)

Turtle Island Quartet pushes boundaries through juxtaposed genres, masterful musical storytelling

Turtle Island Quartet
March 22, 2024
Emerson Hall, Schwartz Center for Performing Arts
Atlanta, GA – USA
“Island Prayers”
David Balakrishnan & Gabriel Terracciano, violins; Benjamin Von Gutzeit, viola; Naseem Alatrash, cello.

David BALAKRISHNAN: Little Mouse Jumps
Rhiannon GIDDENS: Pompey Ran Away
Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ TATE: Little Loski
David BALAKRISHNAN: Island Prayers
David BALAKRISHNAN: Groove in the Louvre
David BALAKRISHNAN: Darkness Dreaming
Terence BLANCHARD: Turtle Trajectory
David BALAKRISHNAN: The Second Wave

Patrick Tabeek | 26 MAR 2024

Despite a dull, rainy Friday, the Turtle Island String Quartet delivered an inspired and hopeful performance at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts that continued its push to redefine traditional string quartet performance.

Composer, violinist, and founding member of the quartet David Balakrishnan, violinist Gave Terracciano, violist Benjamin Von Gutzeit, and cellist Naseem Altrash masterfully performed original works, jazz, and Native American traditional songs in anticipation of a new project of the same name, “Island Prayers.”

The first piece on the program was David Balakrishnan’s Little Mouse Jumps. Taken from a traditional Native American sacred story, the piece follows the story of a misfit on a spiritual journey to find a greater purpose, to find his way to his own “Sacred Mountain.” As Balakrishnan noted in his opening remark, the character is a violinist trying to find his way. The Turtle Island quartet’s ability to blend styles is immediate and effective. Balakrishnan quotes Bach frequently but juxtaposed against more contemporary harmony. The approach makes the music so much more digestible and refreshing, encompassing a broader spectrum of emotional landscapes. The musicians make us feel the uneasiness, chaos, longing, hopefulness, and joy of Little Mouse as we follow him on his journey, taking leaps into the unknown for the sake of being true to oneself.


The next piece was Rhiannon Giddens’ Pompey Ran Away, another story of a violinist on a journey of self-discovery and success. Written from the point of view of a self-emancipated slave during the late 19th century, we follow him on his journey through America, not only to success but the deservedness of joy and freedom. The piece encapsulates the character and traditions of American fiddle playing and its roots through rhythm and harmony. Each player’s solos throughout were effective and impressive while maintaining and serving the character of the music; their instruments seemed more an extension of themselves rather than a tool of expression.

That was followed by Little Loksi’ by Jarod Impichchaachaa’ Tate. A Native American story, Little Loksi’ (little turtle) is flipped over by turbulent winds. Through the piece, we follow Nashoba (wolf) try to find other animals to help, and in doing this, pull the community together, to combine all of their talents, ending in the success of flipping Loksi’ back over. TIQ’s ability to change their tone color in synchronicity so fluidly is remarkable to hear live. This ability allows them to tell stories through the music in a unique and inspiring way.

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Then came another original from Balakrishnan, Island Prayers. In a program filled with stories of self-reflection, Balakrishnan’s own self-reflection upped my appreciation for this performance even further. Inspired by the work on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and its spiritual roots, Balakrishnan takes a similar approach, reflecting on different aspects of his life as time has passed and how he has grown through life.

The first movement, “Dialogue,” is a commentary on the word itself. Through the world events that have gone on in the last four years or so, the word dialogue has become a buzzword for disagreement. The second, “Atonement,” focuses on the group’s mission as it pertains to his own life, giving a space for new and underrepresented composers a chance to be heard. The third movement, “Redemption,” pertains to the group now on the comeback, ready to make music but reinvigorated and spiritually motivated.

Groove in the Louvre, another original by Balakrishnan, followed, juxtaposing the great history of France against its historic but ever-evolving jazz scene. The piece was rhythmically relentless and infectious, filled with sparkling solos from each musician that would make Stéphane Grappelli proud. I couldn’t help but dance in my seat for this piece.

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In Balakrishnan’s Darkness Dreaming, the harmonic qualities were based around the traditional Indian Todi Raga scale, originating from Rajasthan, otherwise known as the ancestral homeland of the Romani people. This piece was a colorful mixing bowl of cultures and musical backgrounds, including jazz and raga, but it also featured cellist Naseem Alatrash. He played a solo using elements from the culture of his homeland, Palestine. The solo was reminiscent of Ahdan, the call to prayer.

Turtle Trajectory by Terence Blanchard, written for TIQ for his 2021 album Absence, plays to the strengths of each of the ensemble’s players. It comes as the result of over 70 performances of partnership between Blanchard and the Turtle Island Quartet. I see it as a sign of legacy for the quartet.

The final piece on the program, The Second Wave, also falls into that category. Another reflective piece for Balakrishnan, it focuses on the 2003 tsunami that struck South Asia and his family there. Through that destruction and hardship, they were able to rebuild and overcome. It was a great capstone to an impressive and emotionally reflective performance.


About the author:
Patrick Tabeek is a freelance violist and violinist, private instructor of violin, viola and piano, and composer primarily based in the Atlanta metro area.

Read more by Patrick Tabeek.
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