As part of the Verona Quartet‘s residency with the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, their UpClose concert series is bringing chamber music to audiences throughout the Triangle in an intimate, accessible, and enjoyable way. Hosted at the tarot-themed bar Arcana in downtown Durham, the Verona Quartet performed alongside featured guest soprano, LaToya Lain. For their final concert of the season, the program celebrated the beauty of French art song and the roots of American dance music. Having written reviews for both the Verona Quartet and LaToya Lain in separate performances, I was delighted to watch their artistry combine in collaboration. And with an excellent craft cocktail selection, the night couldn’t have been better!

Few experiences compare to the drama and spectacle of large, symphonic stage productions but I always appreciate the de-mystifying sensation of casual chamber music without the pressures of theater etiquette. It helps to soften the barrier of the stage and close the gap between the audience and the performers. And without the obscurity of concert formalities, I sensed a degree of community and artistic respect shared between the performers as they enjoyed each other’s performances from the audience.

Lain’s performances throughout the night were nothing short of mesmerizing. Singing Chausson’s “Chanson Perpetuelle,” Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis, and the most famous songs from Duparc, Lain transformed Arcana into a private Parisian salon. In the small space, the fullness of Lain’s voice enveloped the audience with sensitivity, never veering past overpowering. Away from the infrastructure of the stage, I felt acutely aware of the powerful pull Lain had on the audience’s focus. With a magnetic draw, the expression of her face, gestures of her hands, even changes in posture felt compelling and meaningful in such close proximity. Dynamic and arresting, her final performance of the night, Duparc’s longing “L’Invitation au voyage,” highlighted Lain’s dramatic expressiveness.

If the venue felt like a French salon during Lain’s performance, the Verona Quartet’s performance of Myers’ Dance Suite turned the venue into a 1920s speakeasy. Inspired by the jazz stylings of Ellington, Beiderbecke, and Youmans, the arrangement masterfully imitates the improvisatory quality of the source material. The group mentioned that as predominantly classical performers, this arrangement helped them create an incredible simulation of jazz. In many moments of the performance, I felt the instrumentation of a swing band popping through. I could hear the closely harmonized melodies of alto saxophones and clarinets, a soulfully vocal tenor saxophone solo, and exclamatory trombones in the shouting chorus. The range of colors available to the Verona Quartet has astounded me before and this performance was no exception.

Much as I had hoped, members of the audience felt free to embody the movement of the music in the casual concert space. In the final movement of the suite, I noticed a couple in front of me with the biggest smiles on their faces, wagging their fingers and tapping their toes along with the quartet. After talking with them following the concert, I learned the couple was Francine Warwick and Chris Martin who were hosting the Verona Quartet for this performance and are board members for the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle. Francine and Chris weren’t the only ones I noticed grooving along with the music. I even caught a couple of the bartenders rhythmically bobbing their heads to the beat of the tunes.

Downsizing chamber music for smaller venues isn’t a groundbreaking reinvention, but it is a welcome and entertaining return to the form’s history. Instead of hurrying out after the concert, I was glad to see many audience members order another drink or make their way to the performers to thank them for the evening. The UpClose chamber series is a smart way to engage new and familiar audiences outside the constraints of the concert hall. With these musicians especially, watching them perform up close made the detail of the music even more captivating and the ease of their playing even more infectious.