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October 2007

Quartet Duo


A study in contrasts this past weekend from two renowned quartets, heard less than 24 hours from each other. Saturday  was opening night for the People's Symphony Concerts' 108th season at Washington Irving High School, which I've been attending since 2000 and have written about previously. It was the usual packed house to see the Guarneri String Quartet, one of America's great string ensembles. Sadly, we were informed by People's Symphony director Frank Solomon that the Guarneri have announced their retirement in Dsc098772009, at the conclusion of their 45th season. (Unlike many quartets who rotate in new players over time, the Guarneri still features three of its original four members: first violinist Arnold Steinhardt, second violinist John Dalley and violist Michael Tree; cellist Peter Wiley replaced David Soyer in 2001.)

Dsc09885They presented a mixed bag of music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, starting off with Bartok's challenging and dissonant 2nd quartet. Performances of Bartok's six quartets have become more-or-less commonplace on string quartet concerts: a remarkable evolution for a genre commonly referred to as "chamber music." The Guarneri threw off the many fast and difficult passages with ease.

Dsc09888Apparently, the combination of the disturbing sounds and an unventilated auditorium was too much for one elderly listener, who collapsed during the piece's final movement, setting off a flurry of gasps and shouts in the rear of the hall. The Guarneri, to their credit, continued to play as if nothing had happened: no doubt they've been through it more than once before. It took several minutes for the chaos to settle, just in time to hear the work's dark conclusion of two ominous plucks, which never sounded scarier. (Fortunately, we were told after intermission that the elderly woman had merely fainted.)


The remainder of the concert was more conventional fare: Haydn's bright and cheerful Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 and Bederich Smetana's pastoral Quartet No. 1, "From My Life." The playing was basically solid throughout, though seemed to flag at certain points, failing the energy and precision a younger ensemble might have brought to the proceedings. That takes nothing away from the Guarneri's astonishing career, and their essential contribution to the fabric of this music. One can only hope that they've been able to pass along some of what they've learned - and helped create - to the next generation of players.

Dsc09923On Sunday afternoon, it was a quartet of an entirely different stripe: St. Petersburg's Terem Quartet, making a rare stateside visit as part of the 92nd St. Y's Russian Sundays series. The Terem play traditional Russian instruments: the domra, the bayan-accordion and the balalaika. Actually, not just any balalaika: a double-bass balalaika, played on its side like some kind of mutant guitar, but sounding more like Mingus.

Dsc09916The Terem quartet have been around for 21 years and have given performances in over 60 countries. Their specialty is arrangements of classical standards: they started off with a powerful version of the Bach Toccata and Fugue, and moved on to works by Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and an Albeniz imitation by Rodion Schedrin. They played everything from memory, in an engaging, theatrical style: more than once, accordion player Andrey Smirnov leapt from his chair at the end of a piece.

Dsc09924After an imtermission of tea served from samovars in fine china, the second half of the program expanded their palate to music by Astor Piazzola, Gershwin and Nina Rota. They even managed a riff on "Happy Birthday", which would have come off sounding cheesy under most circumstances, but somehow felt appropriate here. The crowd - which spoke far more Russian than English - shouted it's appreciation and clapped in rhythm, just like they do overseas. And on the way out, we were all treated to some premium Russian vodka: just the right touch of warmth on a cool autumn evening.

Dsc09927The Russian Sundays program continues throughout the 2007-2008 season, with  performances by Ljova and the Viola Contraband and Valery Ponomarev and his V.P. Jazz Big Band. Tickets available at the box office or online.

Night on Third Ave

Pa260001Without any pre-set plans, I decided to slop through the rain last night to Issue Project Room's new location on 3rd Ave. and 3rd St. in Brooklyn. The new space is a straight shoebox on the third floor of an old can factory: not as interesting as the silo they used to inhabit, but it still has the same omni-directional speakers and quirky, underground feel.

I arrived mid-set of an electro-acoustic outfit called Ike Yard, that apparently developed something of a following during it's brief existence in the early 80's, and became the first American band to record for the UK's legendary Factory Records. While there were interesting moments bleeding techno and acid house, it was - to my ears - mostly bad noise, and felt a bit like fantasy camp for fifty-somethings.

Pa260006_2On my way out, I overheard that there was another happening called Tranzducer down the avenue at LEMURplex, on 9th St. "LEMUR" stands for the "League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, and is devoted to the creation of robotic musical instruments with names such as, "The Ill-Tempered Clangier": a xylophone-like contraption that clangs percussive melodies on forty-four tuned metal pipes.

There was a DJ spinning when I arrived, but he soon gave way to the fascinating Radio Wonderland, composer Joshua Fried's solo project in which he scans FM stations and remixes them live with the help of software called Max/MSP on his laptop. His choice of samples is often sly, looping the phrases "People have a heart" and "Exact duplicates of others" distorted by turning a steering wheel on top of a rickety stool. Later, he banged out a classical sample on old shoes, making it sound like a Burmese pat waing. Fried is a brilliant improviser; his main issue is letting folks know whether they should sit and listen or get up and dance. If Fried's own nonstop gyrating was any indication, I'm sure he wouldn't mind the latter.        Pa260008

Other Voices

Pa250005Maybe it was my far-off seat up in the mezzanine, or the less-than-half-full house, but I wasn't immediately impressed by the Theatre of Voices performance at Zankel Hall last night. It started out with a Gertrude Stein-esque poem read/sung by leader Paul Hillier, followed by Luciano Berio's A-Ronne, a nonsensical mix of German, Italian, French and English, mixed with burps, snores, and choking sounds. Later, Berio worked in elements of early polyphony -
Theatre of Voices' usual fare - which provided a pretty contrast to the chaos, but somehow didn't totally satify.

Pa250009Things looked far more promising once I snuck down to the main level for the second half, and found myself seated in the same row as composers Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon. They were all there for the world premiere of David Lang's the little match girl passion, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young girl who freezes to death while trying to sell matches on the evening of New Year's Eve. Lang, who wrote the libretto, combines Andersen's story with text from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, highlighting the martyr overtones in the original tale. The music occasionally referred to Bach, but more often resembled the vocal music of Reich or John Adams.

the little match girl passion is filled with sad and beautiful moments, as in the passage when the girl is discovered the next morning frozen to death, clutching a burnt bundle of matches:

"No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, nor into what glory she had entered, on New Year's Day."

Pa250012The piece ended with a haunting dirge, repeating the words "Rest soft" while chimes tolled like church bells, fading quietly away. The crowd - which had grown significantly - offered warm and generous applause: after, I spotted Reich embracing Lang's wife, obviously moved by the work. (Hillier directed the premiere of Reich's The Cave, and Reich wrote Proverb for them. Next month, Theatre of Voices will be performing a concert of Reich's music at the upcoming Festival d'Automne in Normandy.)