Barbara Carroll and Ken Peplowski at 54 Below
The Flatlanders Bring Grassroots to Zankel Hall

Yale in New York Performs String Music from Three Centuries

by Michael Cirigliano II


Despite being only two hours away on the Metro-North Railroad, the Yale School of Music is often glossed over by its Manhattan-based brethren when it comes to recognizing the best music programs of the Metro NYC area. Thankfully, the Yale in New York series strives to rectify that problem, importing the finest of the school's students, faculty, and alumni to Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall four times per season. 

Friday night's program focused on the strength of Yale's string program, bringing together an orchestra led by faculty member and noted violinist Ani Kavafian. The program itself was a study in incredibly contrasting moods, with the death-laden premiere of Matthew Barnson's The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying and Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen ultimately giving way to the second half's presentation of Tchaikovsky's ebullient and light-hearted Serenade for Strings.

The Strauss received a rich and varied reading, blossoming from the cello section's somber opening and into a cohesive testament to the sorrow and despair felt by the composer after the ravages of World War II. Hinging on the fragment of a direct quote from the funeral march of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, the ensemble provided varied interpretations of the well-known melody's many iterations: sometimes triumphant, sometimes exploratory, but overwhelmingly morose. Although heavier articulations and a greater presence during the most tragic climaxes were lacking, there was flawless communication between all of the players, who performed without a conductor.

Currently Associate Professor of Composition at Trinity College, Dublin, Yale alum Barnson constructed a mature and satisfying companion piece to the Strauss, a three-movement rhapsody on death and spiritual ascension that tested the 23-piece string orchestra. The opening prelude relied heavily on bow scraping—an aggressive gnashing of the bow against the strings that produces horrifying subtones—before gentle halos of spectral harmony slowly emerged. Frantic string crossing and ascending runs made up the central "Ricercar," while silvery violin trills and harmonics floated above the lamenting ground bass of the "Passacaglia."

Whereas Strauss confronted the death of his beloved Europe with a final plunge into the deep abyss, Barnson catapulted the strings to an ethereal plane, gradually reducing the volume of the musical shivers until the 23 bows hardly produced any tones at all. And in the absence of pitch, the orchestra created sounds that eerily replicated those of labored human breaths, before ultimately giving way to an extraordinary silence.

After such a turbulent first half, the Tchaikovsky was a welcome change in tenor, with breezy major scales and bubbly Russian melodies effortlessly thrown across the stage by the energetic players. Not a single storm cloud darkened the work, even in the "Élégie," which in Tchaikovsky's hands sounded less like the somber occasion the title implies and more like a sugar-coated pas de deux ripped directly from the ballet stage.

Yale in New York closes out their season on April 28, presenting Hindemith: Master and Prankster at Weill Recital Hall. Program information and tickets are available through Carnegie's website.