The final concert of Chamber Music Monterey’s 2014/15 season at Sunset Center on April 10th was excellent throughout. The Miró Quartet, formed twenty years ago and making their fourth appearance in Carmel, were in wonderful form, with their flawless playing both pleasing to the ear and entirely at the service of the music.
Centerpiece of the program was the world première of “Five”, commissioned from Christopher Theofanidis by CMMB as the fourth and final work in a series named “Arc of Life”. As explained by past president Amy Anderson who conceived the series, it was inspired by her seeing in New York the five giant panels of renowned video artist Bill Viola’s “Going Forth by Day.” Theofanidis was singularly well placed to respond to this theme, since he was already a great enthusiast for Viola’s other work, and was then fortunate enough to see a revival of “Going Forth by Day” at a Paris retrospective. Each movement of “Five” has the name of one of Viola’s video panels, although the work does not attempt to represent the images so much as to reflect the composer’s experience of watching them.
Before the music began, we were treated to about five minutes of stills taken from the videos, with suitable disclaimers that this was not at all the same as seeing the live videos, which are shown concurrently for about thirty minutes, with the viewer free to move around and to notice more dramatic events occurring at different times on the panels. Since the composer chose to focus on one panel per movement, he has represented some of the peripheral awareness of other panels and their relationships by introducing fragments from other movements.
“Fire Birth” began with strong, sonorous, and rhythmical passages, and shifted to tremolandi and glissandi. We had just admired the viola’s pizzicato, followed by fffdouble-stopping, when everything stopped – the viola had broken a string. Since this happens several times in 20 years, the cellist was ready to entertain us with anecdotes, until the offstage repair had been completed, and the performance recommenced. This time the viola played with slightly less abandon, and the danger spot was safely negotiated. The general character of the music was of some minor tonality or modality, interesting and quite easy to follow. The iridescent tremoloending was a fine climax.
The images of “The Path” show a variety of people walking in both directions along a level path through vertical trees. The music begins attractively, and a recurring pedal point or drone on various instruments may represent the path, with more upright figurations for the trees. Then one can imagine that different moving passages correspond to the composer/s reaction to, or curiosity about, some of the people.
“The Deluge” shows a symmetrical house facade with a central closed front door and people outside. Eventually the deluge arrives – possibly from a thunderstorm behind the house – with torrential water pouring through the house and out of the front door, and people scattering. (I actually saw this happen once in a small English village in Somerset.) Musically, the movement begins with a fine cello solo, and the deluge features vivid tremolo, before dying away to a desolate ending. By this time, I had come to accept the frequent use of tremolo, realizing that it was not intended as a special effect but as an intrinsic part of the musical language for this piece.
The scene for “The Voyage” is a house at the end of a long lake, and a ferryboat moored nearby. Some of the birth music seems to return over a long cello pedal (the flat water?) as someone from the house prepares to take a final voyage. There are quiet, held, reflective dissonances, then intense vibrato and pulsing before the profound ending.
“First Light” seems to pass from the Styx-like voyage to a vertical ascent to Heaven, with held notes supporting a variety of brief interjections reminiscent of Bartók’s “night music.” For the final ascent, all the instruments climb to a dizzy height.
This work is a fine addition to the repertoire, and received a performance from the Miró Quartet that any composer would dream of. Greeted by a standing ovation, the quartet brought to the stage Christopher Theofanidis and Amy Anderson to share the gratitude of the audience – most of whom would probably like to hear the work again, and to hear more of this rising composer’s work. (This concert will be broadcast on KUSP 88.9 FM on Friday May 15th at 8 pm).
The Haydn and Schubert quartets that bookended the new work were also highly successful, despite presenting challenges to the players in their different ways. Haydn’s Quartet in D minor, Op.76 no.2, cannot escape comparison with Mozart’s K 421 masterpiece in the same key, and is best regarded as modest homage to the Mozart rather than competition. That said, it is still a mature work of the father of the string quartet, and a late work, having been written after Mozart’s early death.
The Miró avoided any hint of treating this first work on the program as a warmup,and began with the celebrated pair of descending fifths that give the work its nickname, immediately establishing a polished style for their late Haydn that was, probably intentionally, almost Mozartean. All four instruments produced beautiful sounds to compensate for the relatively simple development of the ideas in this work, and the slow movement in the major was finely sustained, with pregnant pauses heightening the listener’s concentration. The minuet is a highlight, being a strict canon between pairs of instruments, already with a touch of the hurdy-gurdy which comes out fully in the trio. The brisk finale is pretty much a moto perpetuo for the first violin, played with warmth and sweetness by Daniel Ching, whose impeccable playing and unobtrusive leadership contributed so much to the evening.
The challenge of Schubert’s last and posthumous Quartet in G (D.887) seems to me (as a listener and not a string player) to be twofold – it is very long, and the assertive parts are rather obvious and unadorned. At their best, performances of Schubert’s longer works can be of heavenly length, and you hope they will never end – otherwise you just wonder if they will ever end. My previous experiences with this last quartet had been of the latter kind.
Fortunately the Miró’s strengths provided the heavenly length experience. Their tonal beauty combined with their supple phrasing, ensured that the attention never wandered, and length was not a problem. In the more vigorous parts, their avoidance of any harshness of attack (while retaining plenty of rhythmic vitality) meant that these parts also had a touch of the lyricism of the gentle lieder-like sections, and clearly came from the pen of the same composer rather than from one who was just noisy. (Another general observation, relative to the Theofanidis piece, is that Schubert uses more tremolo than I had remembered in this quartet).
Although the work is usually described as being in G major, it has hardly begun before G minor intrudes with a jagged dotted rhythm, and apart from other modulations, the struggle between the two keys continues to the end of the 45-minute work, even though at the end of the first movement, it sounded as though G major had won the day. Already we had heard a very spacious sonata form, including a solo on cello (Joshua Gindele, with exceptionally smooth legato), followed by viola (John Largess, with rich tone). The slow movement had more cello solos, and the Scherzo was crisp and light, with a violin and cello duet in the trio. The lively finale returns to the alternation between G major and minor, and included an excellent second violin solo from William Fedkenheuer. The winner of the contest is in doubt until a quiet skittering in the major meets no opposition, and gives the confidence for the final two grand chords, resolving to the major across as many strings as possible.
This magnificent performance led to another ovation and brought the season to a memorable close.
April 15, 2015