From the very beginning, Solera Quartet has been committed to fiery musical expression and social initiatives.
After her nonprofit Project: Music Heals Us (PMHU) had flourished in its first season, nonprofit founder and violist Molly Carr felt very strongly that her next task was to figure out how to bring the programming into the prison system. Earlier in her life, Molly received word that one of her closest childhood friends would be spending the next decade in a correctional facility.
“It was during my visits to see this friend while he was behind bars that the idea of a prison project was born — as any time spent behind concrete walls, metal gates and barbed wire will make someone feel the extreme need for some sort of beauty, kindness, or human warmth in that space,” she said.
Bringing Music Into Bleak Spaces
With the overwhelmingly positive audience response during its first concert in a Connecticut state prison, Molly opted to immediately expand PMHU’s programming to include an entirely new “Prison Outreach Residency” branch beyond its regular season.
This expansion included three separate prison residencies that brought the Solera Quartet – PMHU’s string quartet in residence – to perform dozens of concerts in state and federal prisons throughout New York, Connecticut, and California.
At this point, cellist and co-director Andrew Janss stepped in to help run and continue to expand this program to which they added four additional prison residencies and eventually a series of week-long creative workshops through which inmates were able to compose their own musical pieces.
Solera Quartet was honored this past season with the ProMusicis 2017 Father Eugène Merlet Award for Community Service to aid in this pilot program, which centered on Beethoven’s Op. 95 at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution and featured concerts for inmates and staff; deep, investigative listening activities; interactive study sessions; and a creative composers’ workshop. At the end, the Solera Quartet recorded the inmates’ compositions. This makes Solera Quartet the first and only American chamber ensemble invited to join Pro Musicis’ illustrious roster.
The group also was recently awarded the 2018 Guarneri String Quartet Residency, funded by the Sewell Family Foundation through Chamber Music America. This award will allow the quartet to double its capacity, allowing the possibility for two week-long musical immersions.
Touching Lives On Both Sides Of The Gates
One early story that stuck with Andrew was from the first concert the quartet gave at a maximum security prison. One of the audience members came to Andrew to say that just before he went inside, his niece had begun playing the cello, and it was one of his biggest regrets that he could not be by her side to support her in that endeavor. When it was time for the man to leave, the principal of the school in the facility came to him and said, “I don’t know what you said to him, but that man hasn’t spoken a word to anyone in here since he arrived. The fact that he just talked to you AND showed emotion is HUGE.”
“We were floored, because it is always a bit unpredictable how people are going to react to art, and rare that you get such a moving, tangible result so instantaneously,” Andrew said.
More recently, PMHU brought in a trio of classical and jazz musicians to the OBCC at Rikers Island. This is one of the more difficult housing units at Rikers, and at one particular housing unit, due to a disturbance, the musicians were not allowed to bring in their music stands due to a potential hazard.
“Without missing a beat, the PMHU musicians transitioned from a Brahms-centric program to a jazz and crossover one, with the highlight definitely being a request from one of the inmates to hear the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata,” Andrew said. “Without sheet music, Jeremy Jordan and Mark Dover improvised a piece based on the themes of the original Beethoven, to the wide-eyed appreciation of the audience. Whatever tension there was in the room beforehand had completely dissipated by the time we left.”
The 2018-19 season includes the Quartet’s Carnegie Hall debut as well as significant debuts in Boston and Chicago.
The group also released its debut album in September, titled “Every Moment Present”. The album draws from three creative minds: Caroline Shaw, Leoš Janáček, and Felix Mendelssohn.
According to its website: “In this context, ‘every moment present’ is more than a poetic substitution for ‘obsession.’ It describes what we as a quartet value most about living with and sharing this music. Our great hope is that these works may deepen and enliven all of us, emboldening us to be more fully aware and connected in every moment — to ourselves and to each other.”
For more about Solera Quartet and its upcoming season, visit its website.