The young Chiara Quartet (Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon, violins, Jonah Sirota, viola, and Gregory Beaver, violoncello) presented an unusual program at the Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh as the first performance in the Masters Series of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. (The concert was also the third and final concert of this year's September Prelude Chamber Music Festival.) With but a few exceptions (Kronos, Arditti) string quartets, even those with substantial experience in premiering new works, are notoriously conservative in how they structure programs (perhaps due to Philistinism in the provinces?) and so I was enthused by the lineup on offer – not a single work earlier than the twentieth century, and three recent works by young(ish) composers, all gathered under the title "Mestizaje" (Spanish for mixing, and perhaps more properly translated by miscegenation).
First up was Leyendas by Gabriela Lena Frank, subtitled An Andean Walkabout. Frank is an American, born in Berkeley to parents of Chinese/Peruvian and Lithuanian/Jewish ancestry respectively. The Chiaras decided to section the six-movement piece in this performance. Two movements introduced the first half, two closed the first half, and the final two closed the concert. Leyendas played audibly on the composer's Chinese and Peruvian roots, but the ingredients provided little more than a bit of exotic spice to what was really a very thin gruel, leaving me in doubt about the extent of Frank's powers of both invention and development. The juxtaposition of Frank's effort with the extremely dense and demanding Second Quartet of Bartók was not at all to Frank's advantage, the effect being that of a steak sandwich with a pound of prime filet between two very thin pieces of pita. The Bartók was capably played on a technical level, but never quite left the ground.
The second half began with the "Song of the Ch'in" (1982) by Chinese-born composer Zhou Long (resident in the US since 1985), which was rather more successful in its reconciliation of non-Western elements with the Western tradition. Where the program really took flight (finally!) was in the Yiddishbbuk (1992) by Oswaldo Golijov (born in Argentina, now professor at Holy Cross), played dramatically in a darkness illuminated only by the stand-lights, and evoking the nightmare experiences of central-European Jewry. Here one got a sense of what a quartet that seems still tethered to its student days might be capable of in terms of performance and interpretation. After this high point, the program closed, alas, with more kitsch-ery – the final Leyendas from Frank.
All in all, what was lacking, and what the Chiara must develop, is a sense of performance, of drama, of something beyond simply the notes on the page. Without this, what the listener takes away from the concert is a feeling of the work involved, but not how this work is transcended to become play in the highest sense of the word.