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Ear Heart Music: Del Sol String Quartet Performs New Works

del sol quartet and joshue ott

Picture this: Veteran Bay Area string quartet visits New York with a program of recent work incorporating elements from a variety of musical traditions, presented with evocative stage lighting and other multimedia components. No, it's not who you might think—it's the Del Sol Quartet (Kate Steinberg and Rick Shinozaki, violins; Charlton Lee, viola; Kathryn Bates-Williams, cello), founded in San Francisco in 1992, with dozens of commissions to their credit. 

Del Sol might not be as much of a household name in these parts, but thanks to the Ear Heart Music series, New Yorkers had a chance to hear them last Wednesday night at Roulette, where they performed an engaging program of recent works they've commissioned. Lembit Beecher dedicated These Memories May Be True (2012) to his grandmother, who passed away two weeks after he began composing it. Evoking the war-torn Estonia of her youth, the music was filled with screeching and shrieking, ending on a dark, somber note. 

Continuing the theme of war, Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung's Spiral X: In Memoriam (2007) was dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Ung had the players mic'd so they could issue piercing shouts and sing in a deliberately raw, indiginous style. The effect was startling when combined with the quartet's sharp, energetic playing.

Ken ueno and del sol quartet

The players were also mic'd for Ken Ueno's Peradem (2011), named for a mythical gemstone that only reveals itself to those with "sincere desire." For Ueno, it can also be the sort of beautiful moment we stumble across after many months, or even years, of searching. The players did their part to deliver a musical parade within a quiet, creepy soundscape that included pizzicato and Tuvan throat singing, among other effects.

The program ended with Mason Bates' Bagatelles for string quartet and electronica, which violist Lee said they were fortunate to commission before Bates became composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony. Unlike some of Bates' other compositions, the beat track on Bagatelles was actually compiled from samples of the Del Sol players plucking strings and slapping the bodies of their instruments. The visceral experience of Bates' music was amplified by Joshue Ott's dazzling computer-generated visuals, which swirled across Roulette's proscenium like multicolored pools of paint.

del sol string quartet

I realized on my ride home that Del Sol's connection to these composers comes from the fact that all of them are either from California originally, or live there now—which goes to show just how much thoughtful, inventive music those of us on the right coast are missing out on.

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