Plucky vocalists bring innovative strings to Stoughton

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Real Vocal String Quartet. -Photo: COURTESY

Violinist Irene Sazar has ambitious goals. Through her San Francisco-based performance group Real Vocal String Quartet, she aims to engage a new generation of listeners and broaden their musical horizons.

As a result, Sazar stretches the boundaries of quartet tradition in a number of ways, including the incorporation of vocals into the group’s performances.

“We do have some strong constants in the group in that we’re all accomplished musicians with classical training, and we’re all composers,” Sazar says. But, she adds, “We’re eclectic, we’re original.”

Wisconsin audiences will have the chance to learn how original the group is when RVSQ performs at the Wisconsin Stoughton Opera House on March 28.

Sazar has had an accomplished career that includes teaching at the School of Strings and String Improvisation in Berkeley, Calif. As an individual performer, Sazar has accompanied Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and other major artists. She says the most thrilling night of her career was sharing the stage with Ella Fitzgerald, which “really gave me goose bumps.”

In addition to Sazar, RVSQ includes violinist and Madison native Alisa Rose, cellist Jessica Ivry and, most recently, violinist and interim member Matthias McIntire. The first male to perform with the quartet, he’s subbing on this tour for violist Dina Maccabee, who’s on leave to complete a composition scholarship at Wesleyan University. 

“Matthias is an amazing musician, but we’ve had to rewrite all the vocal parts of our numbers to accommodate his voice,” Sazar says.

RVSQ performs mostly original or re-arranged music. The musicians’ tastes run from pop to bluegrass to jazz to world music. Occasionally, they play classical music, but always in original arrangements.

“We’ve all played our share of Haydn string quartets,” Sazar says. “But today we play music that we either compose or arrange — that’s a unifying factor of who we are — and our personal tastes drive our choices.”

Those choices reflect the music to which the musicians have been exposed. RVSQ has served quartet residencies at the University of Delaware and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. In 2012, the U.S. State Department chose RVSQ as musical ambassadors with the American Voices program. From their performances in Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Latvia and Lithuania, they brought back musical influences that flavor their current playlist.

The experience so affected the performers that RVSQ has begun contacting poets from San Francisco’s sister cities — there are 19 worldwide — and setting their words to original music composed by quartet members.

RVSQ’s concert playlist in Stoughton will include: a piece the group collected during its travels in Azerbaijan and arranged collaboratively; Alisa Rose’s arrangement of “Cluck, Old Hen,” a traditional Appalachian folk tune first recorded in 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson; and “Knotty Pine” by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

On the Byrne selection, expect to hear the group “experimenting with new, different and weird sounds,” including “knocks, plucks, screeches and whispers.”

RVSQ’s improvisational approach is something that has precedence in string quartet musical history.

“I feel we’re harking back to the tradition of Renaissance and Baroque string players,” she says. “They were improvisers.”

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ON STAGE

The Real Vocal String Quartet appears at the Stoughton Opera House, 381 E. Main St., Stoughton, on March 28. For information and tickets, call 608-877-4400 or visit www.stoughtonoperahouse.com.

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