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19.5.04

Do Something Like Men!

Heat and humidity (as well as an all-20th-century program?) kept the audiences away from the National Gallery’s Sunday concert again. Last week I wrote with giddiness almost about the most challenging and wonderfully exciting concert program (see review on May 12): had I only looked ahead on the schedule, I could have known then that Mme. Schein's riveting recital was going to be followed by a string quartet presentation every bit as modern, exciting, and (even without the economic aspects at the free concerts playing much of a role) daring program. Once again, only one composer on the evening's list was dead, with the dubious honor going to Charles Ives this time. (Aaron Copland had his musical postmortem moment of glory last week.)

Carter's Elegy, a work that had several incarnations for different ensembles (from viola or cello sonata in 1943, to string quartet in '46, to string orchestra in '52, and a general revamp in '61), was first to go. Carter, to whom I had already flippantly attributed "Grand-Daddy" status of living American composers last week showed his stuff again in another accessible work of his.

The very charming and relatively young Colorado String Quartet, all embracing smiles as they entered the stage, started this piece with all the feeling that the title suggests. A sailing, coherent sound with a beautiful tone made the most of this soothing work, which ought to have charmed even the more conservative ears in the audience. More fluid and melodical even than the powerful Piano Sonata by Carter from around the same time (a piece Ann Schein had played), this work, too, is a far cry from his far more thorny (though rewarding) string quartets. The one-movement work was rightly appreciated with warm applause from the thin audience.

Writing that Robert Maggio was next would be doubly true: called forth by the first violin's gesture, the tall, slender 40-year-old composer (looking barely 30) gave a little introduction to the Songbook for Annamaria, his first string quartet from 2001. Quick and very amiable, pointing out the difficult acoustics of the West Garden Court en route (usually a hobby of mine in my reviews), he pointed to the children song relations of the four movements, as the piece was composed in part for the advent of his now three-year-old adopted daughter. The other part of the compositional impetus was a "goodbye" in response to the passing away of his grandmother, the namesake of little Annamaria.

"We’re Bound Away...", with the song "Shenandoah" as its anchor, is about the journey that becoming parents—perhaps particularly those adopting a child—undergo in the process. My unfortunate ignorance of all the related songs made it impossible for me to determine how far they truly underlie the individual movements or whether they were rather the perhaps melodically remote inspiration. "When You Wake...", based on "Little Horses," denotes the difficulties of parents finding sleep with a toddler in the house. The very slow and subtly progressing music then sounded either like the portrait of an unwilling insomniac or as the cure for such a condition. "Jimmy Crack Corn..." ("Bluetail Fly"), depicting 'play', was naturally more animated and a little bit more daring musically, much to its benefit. The very concentrated-looking Colorado String Quartet made this fine music shine brightly.

The music itself is superbly interesting. Not modernist entirely (though at times, that, too)—nor gratuitously difficult (which would make little sense anyway, given the topic)—far from 21st-century archaism à la Pärt or Taverner, tamer than Carter, Hoiby, or the late Michael Tippett, yet never boring, never flat or cliché: it is a very attractive example of tonality reasserting itself in modern music without throwing the 'modern' part overboard or stooping to some backwards-looking rehashing of a bygone musical vernacular. More conservative tastes than mine (I actually like Tippett and Hoiby) might perhaps attribute to Mr. Maggio's music the rekindling of the spiritual element that they often find lacking so direly in much of the modern music of the last 60 years.

"All the Live-Long Day", based on "I've Been Working on the Railroad," was particularly successful. Judging from the applause and the comments overheard, the audience—in good part of a rather mature makeup—felt the same way. Of course, the composer's presence does help (as opposed to distort).

Since the audience had been lamentably small to begin with, it was not really detectable whether it had shrunk much after the intermission—though I doubt it, given that most attendees seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the music presented. This enjoyment of modern music is a wonderful thing, and when I champion the attendance of these exciting concerts, it is not so much because of a hidden, modernist agenda that I carry in my heart, but rather because the neglect of the art produced and created around us that is suffered by classical music especially is a neglect that comes at our own peril. Surely, classical music made it difficult to stay with it and enjoy it (especially at a superficial level) over the last half-century or longer. But not only are many of these all too harsh edges being rounded off now by new composers: among those very edges, too, are hiding true marvels that expand our horizon, musical or otherwise, if only we give them an enthusiastic and determined fair chance.

At the Gallery to help us with that was "Poison Ives" and his 1911–13 second string quartet, which had been moved ahead of the Joan Tower piece because it was deemed better fitting and nicely contrasting with the Maggio work, in that it is based on songs and musical quotations. This is true, though not as obviously and much as its predecessor, the hymn-based String Quartet no. 1 ("From the Salvation Army... Not Quite"), recently served up so adequately by the Leipzig String Quartet at the Library of Congress (see my review on April 18).

The quote on Charles Ives by Arnold Schoenberg, found among the papers in Schoenberg's estate, bears repeating: "A great man lives in this country—a composer. He has solved the problem of how to stay true to oneself and still learn. He reacts to neglect with disdain. He needs neither accept nor snub criticism. His name is Ives."

Being true only to himself and throwing all conventions to the four winds (more easily done, being the millionaire he was), Ives has fun with a piece that originated out of a most noble motivation, namely to cure the Kneisel Quartet from an apparently all too girlish or else pedestrian performance he observed, and instead make "those fiddlers get up and do something like men." A later memorandum—we can gather all that from the as always excellent program notes by Elmer Booze—describes it as depicting "four men who converse, discuss, argue (in re 'politicks'), fight, shake hands, shut up, then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament." Most notable among the musical references in the first movement (Discussions) is a first straight, then painfully twisted "Dixie" quotation. The 'Discussion' runs the whole gamut from heated exchange to more amiable, relaxed conversation, when Arguments turns up the heat with Allegro con spirito with its witty arguments, often brought forcefully by one instrument and then angrily rejected by the rest.

This banter, back and forth, came across wonderfully in the Colorado String Quartet's impeccable playing: spirited and with enough aggression. Further allusions in the music were sprinkled in at will, it seemed—most notably "Freude schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus[...]." The call of the mountains, the Romantic view of enlightened stargazing in the setting of male, gentlemen-like friendship (I imagine a North-Pole-expedition-like comradery, minus the polar bears and frozen toes) is for the better part a rather arduous ascent. Adagio-Andante-Adagio allows for the final contemplation atop the summit, and the rather peaceful solution sent us to Joan Tower's one-movement Quartet no. 2 (In Memory), commissioned by the Tokyo String Quartet and written first in memory of Mme. Tower's friend Margaret Shafer—though after September 11, it continued including the mourning for all those who lost their lives on that fateful day.

Starting with a wailing solo violin voice that descends meanderingly until the second violin (strangely muted throughout most of the evening, to find at least one point of criticism) falls in and the movement of the melody becomes less directed and more frustratingly lamenting. Increasing energy and tension are achieved through increased tempi with perpetual 3-, 4-, and 7-note figures in the lower, then the upper registers. Abrasively struck, repeated notes separate these blocks and lead into gentler, if no less desperate, musical waters. A beautiful cello line gets to lament (Shelomo by Ernst Bloch came to my mind at that point) before the memories become a group affair again and a back and forth between the violins and the viola with the cello prepare for the end that features a viola pizzicato over a coming and going single note.

The reaction from the crowd was heartwarmingly open-minded and enthusiastic. The Colorado String Quartet deserved it every bit for their outstanding performance in all respects. The ensemble, by the way, is made up of Julie Rosenfeld (violin), Deborah Redding (violin), Marka Gustavsson (viola), and Diane Chaplin (cello). You couldn't have found a better quartet to "get up and do something like men."

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