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Quatuor Diotima I: Contemporary

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American Music (Reich, Barber, Crumb), Quatuor Diotima

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Berg / Schoenberg / Webern,
S. Piau, M.-N. Lemieux,
Quatuor Diotima
The biennial (or so) visits of the Quatuor Diotima to the auditorium of La Maison Française, as part of that venue's contemporary music series, are something we look forward to -- although not always recommend for all listeners. This French quartet plays all kinds of music, including modern and immediately contemporary, and they will perform a program of older music this evening at the Library of Congress. The program at the French Embassy, however, consisted mostly of pieces of more recent vintage, premiered within the last year. For all of their differences, these three pieces for string quartet all sounded cut from the same cloth, under the influence of spectralism, among other styles.

All three composers explored the boundaries and edges of sound possible on the traditional string instruments, so much so that genial introductions to each piece, made by members of the Diotima Quartet, began to cover the same sort of territory. Oscar Bianchi used microtonal writing, clusters, spacey glissandi, growls, pizzicato plinks and many other effects in his Quartet No. 6, even closing the work on a pitchless bow noise that sounded something like the crash of distant ocean waves. The music received an optimal performance from this ensemble, who go out of their way to favor beauty over stridency, even in the most outlandish sorts of music. Rhythm, however, has been the downfall of so much modern music, and the abundance of sounds like whistles, steam escaping, feedback noise, and so on could not make up for the fact that, except for the frantic conducting of first violinist Yun-Peng Zhao's head, one had little sense of rhythmic pulse because it was so fractured.

The situation was much the same with Ramon Lazkano's Lurralde, a work peppered with sounds more easily associated with chemical processes, electronics, and science experiments than a string quartet -- fluttery harmonics, near-bridge tremolos, avian twitters, a whole hallucinogenic sound-scape. Lazkano came by his spectralist tendencies honestly, having studied with Gérard Grisey in Paris, but the most memorable moments in the piece stood out for the invigorating sense of rhythm -- but mostly deprived of pitch altogether. Commissioned by the Auditorium du Louvre, Mexican-born composer Ana Lara's Au-delà du visible uses a number of effects of harmonics to tell the story of beloved friends departed. Lara has studied in many places, including a turn at ethnomusicology here at the University of Maryland, and even this fairly brief work (nine minutes) hinted at a burgeoning musical imagination. Following on such an exhaustive pass through the vocabulary of contemporary string music, however, something composed mostly of arco writing and with a standard 12-note chromatic scale would have stood out more.

Other Reviews:

Alex Baker, Quatour Diotima at the French Embassy (Wellsung, April 13)
The real problem with string quartets in this style is that György Ligeti has done it all before, as the Quatuor Diotima proceeded to demonstrate by ending this concert with the Hungarian composer's Quartet No. 2. The Diotima introduction joked about the Ligeti as "historical music," but this quartet still sounds as fresh and paradigm-exploding as when it was premiered, in 1968: the painstaking anatomy lesson examining a single note, played in countless timbres, in the second movement; the dissection of the idea of rhythmic pulse in the third movement, related to the composer's fascination with metronomes; the deafening silences, performed here with statue-like stillness from the four musicians. So much that has come after it, including the three pieces featured on this program, can sound derivative of it.

While the concert season at La Maison Française appears to be over, there are hints that Ionarts favorite Alexandre Tharaud will be returning to Washington in the fall. Ainsi soit-il!

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