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Arts & Culture
Steve Metcalf has been writing about the musical life of this region, and the wider world, for more than 30 years. For 21 of those years, he was the full-time staff music critic of The Hartford Courant. During that period, via the L.A. Times/Washington Post news service, his reviews, profiles and feature stories appeared in 400 newspapers worldwide.He is also the former assistant dean and director of instrumental music at The Hartt School, where he founded and curated the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series. He is currently Director of the Presidents' College at the University of Hartford. Steve is also keyboardist emeritus of the needlessly loud rock band Duke and the Esoterics.Reach him at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

Hartford Chamber Group's Goal: Merely World Peace

Cuatro Puntos
Members of Cuatro Puntos at the Hartford riverfront.
The most ambitious portion of the Cuatro Puntos mission has been its activity in Afghanistan.

When we think about the major agents of social change we don’t immediately think of classical chamber music.

Thanks to groups like Cuatro Puntos, we need to perhaps start changing our thinking.

The six-person Hartford-based chamber music collective was formed a handful of years ago with an admirable, even audacious agenda that ranged from local community outreach and education (fairly standard these days) to international cultural diplomacy, sometimes in remote and war-torn spots like Afghanistan (not at all standard.)

Its name is Spanish for “four points,” as in the four points of the compass, signifying a global perspective on trying to, well, make the world better.

The six core members are musicians who are, to varying degrees, known to local audiences through other associations: violinists Aaron Packard and Annie Trepanier; cellist Allan Ballinger; bassist Holly Bishop; and violists Steve Larson and Kevin Bishop.

Here is the group’s own definition of its mission:

Culture-bridging programs geared toward developing, war-torn, or isolated areas. These include projects in Afghanistan, Bolivia, and India.
Programs that serve youth and community our Connecticut community. These include our Chamber Music for Peace workshops, school visits, retirement home visits, Community Play/Sing-Ins, and our partnership with the organization Hartford Performs.
We strive for the highest in artistic excellence as we present concerts that are themed toward our greater goal of peace and understanding through music. These concerts include our regular series at St. Marks in Glastonbury, Trinity Episcopal in Hartford, and various other concerts throughout New England. It also includes our international tours- in 2014-2015 to Brazil, Bolivia, and Afghanistan, and in 2015-2016, to England, Germany, Afghanistan, and India.

Pretty impressive for a local chamber group.

Credit Cuatro Puntos
Cuatro Puntos
Members of Cuatro Puntos at the Hartford riverfront. From left, Aaron Packard, Kevin Bishop, Dr. Mary Matthews, Annie Trepanier, Steve Larson, and Pablo Issa Skaric.

By all accounts, the guiding spirit and original catalyst for the organization is Kevin Bishop.

Bishop is a soft-spoken 28-year-old who grew up in southern California. He said he doesn’t know exactly what led him to the notion of bringing music to troubled communities – domestic or foreign – but that it has been a guiding idea in his life as long as he can remember.

“I guess I just always saw music as a powerful force that can change lives,” Bishop said.

As a young person, he helped organize music programs in low-income neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles.  

A few years ago, Bishop came to Connecticut to study viola with Steve Larson. By and by, Larson and his wife Annie Trepanier would become members of Cuatro Puntos.

Bishop’s professional resume – which looks as if it could belong to someone at the end of a long and productive career, rather than someone not yet 30 – includes an array of entrepreneurial activity, all of it ultimately tying together music and social betterment.

But Bishop is clearly not of the traditional “inoculation” school of arts education, in which schoolchildren are bused to some hallowed performance hall for an hour or two of uplift at the hands of Beethoven and Brahms.

Instead, the Cuatro Puntos approach tends to favor wading out into the community, often armed with new music composed expressly for the communities or occasions at hand, and sometimes performing alongside the local population, be it kids or professionals musicians.

The most ambitious, and certainly the most dangerous, portion of the Cuatro Puntos mission has been its activity in Afghanistan, and specifically a school called the National Afghan Institute of Music, in Kabul. The institute serves a range of ages, from elementary school to post-high school age.

Bishop and his wife Holly – the sextet’s bassist – have made several visits to the institute. It is not a place for the faint of heart.

Credit Courtesy Kevin Bishop
Courtesy Kevin Bishop
Kevin and Holly Bishop, on opposite ends of the group, with the girls of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and others. The school's founder, Dr. Sarmast, is at center.

Bishop said that along with the Taliban, there are other fundamentalist elements within Afghan society that are opposed to music and the teaching of it. That opposition is often violent, and just a few months ago, expressed itself in the form of a suicide bomber blowing up the school’s auditorium, killing and injuring many.

“So we have to stay in a heavily guarded compound, and at the school itself there is tons of security.”

Nevertheless, Bishop and his group are committed to advancing the relationship, as part of its cross-cultural, and cross-border vision of itself.

Closer to home, Cuatro Puntos’ new season begins with a program called “From Damascus to Kabul,” September 24 at the Lutheran Church of St. Mark in Glastonbury.

The program will include music by composers from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.

It will also include the world premiere of a piece by British composer Sadie Harrison, who is currently Cuatro Puntos’s composer-in-residence. Harrison’s piece, “Gulistan-e Nur” (The Rosegarden of Light), is scored for string sextet and youth ensemble, and is dedicated to those Afghani citizens and students who have been killed or injured as a result of the cultural violence in their country.

The program will be repeated September 25 at Goodwin College; September 26 at Trinity College; and September 27 in Somerville, Massachusetts. For details about these concerts, visit the group's website, cuatropuntos.org.

I often hear people say that classical music is no longer “relevant.”

I’m not always sure what they mean, but I think they mean that they don’t see classical performers on Jimmy Fallon or “America’s Got Talent,” and so they assume that nothing much is going on.

Here is a partial summary of Cuatro Puntos’s upcoming season: 54 events in six countries; three multi-week international residencies; an international visiting guest artist residency; an album release of a three-nation recording collaboration; several university residencies; a concert at Jordan Hall in Boston among other major international halls; support from five major foundations.

Pretty relevant, I would say.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

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