Chamber Music Review



Wrestling with New Music

November 19, 2005 - Durham, NC:


The Ciompi Quartet continued to celebrate its 40th anniversary with its second series concert of the year, presented on November 19 in the Nelson Music Room, one of our region's most intimate and best venues, acoustically-speaking. The Quartet's formal anniversary concert, in July, was unusual in that it didn't include any new music, but new music is definitely where it's at for the CQ, which has almost certainly done more than any other local performing group to advance "the cause." There was new music on the group's first subscription concert of the current season – indeed, 'twas a revival of a work premiered by the CQ in 2003 – and the second program included an important "new" work - by Lee Hyla – that had been premiered by the Lydian String Quartet, another progressive ensemble that, like the CQ, is in touch with the music of our time. That last phrase echoes the raison d'être of Duke's "Encounters" series, on which Hyla's String Quartet No. 4 was first presented locally, just a month ago. At the time, we pulled our punches, knowing we'd have another shot at the 1999 composition – two other shots, indeed, since it also figured in the CQ's superb "First Course" series on November 17, when the composer himself introduced the piece and the quartet played bits of it before traversing the whole thing. It was helpful because this is a knotty score in the somewhat passé "academic" style of 20 or so years ago. As a result, it's a work that demands considerable investment – from the performers, for sure, and from the listeners, too. That the Ciompi Quartet has so effectively and devotedly campaigned it here speaks volumes about their commitment. That some listeners got to hear it several times helped them grasp the composer's purpose – although more than a few of us will require still more exposures before we begin fully to understand it.

Thinking about new music in general and this piece in particular prompts reflection on other "new" music of the past, some of which has become the "classical" music of the present. Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Anton Webern, and even Arnold Schoenberg may in time achieve acceptance comparable to the conventional canon of works by the three B's (and others), but for many, these folks aren't "there" yet. This applies to Hyla's score. It's intellectually challenging, it's built in an intriguing way, it uses many modern devices, and it is a piece that repays repeated hearings. But it's not particularly user-friendly the first time around or the second or the third. This in turn prompts thoughts of John Eaton, another contemporary composer who recently visited the Triangle. Eaton's music is "hard," too – maybe even harder than Hyla's, technically – but he commented at one point during one of his lectures that he goes out of his way to make everything as easy as possible for his performers – clearly in order to encourage repeats of his works by those who premiere them and others as well. Based on Hyla's comments (about the frequent meter changes, and about the intentional lack of alignment of many of the parts), I am not sure this score is likely to be taken up by your everyday touring ensemble, due in part to the large amount of time it surely takes to prepare.

All that said, and remembering that allusion to "academic" fare of a while ago, the piece reminded this listener of really angry faculty meetings in which the science profs, say, take on the humanities folks – or all the "real" teachers erupt about the fat budgets the jocks enjoy. There are solo outbursts from all quarters, there are various and sundry duets – including concurrent duets in different times that don't quite coincide – and there's a good bit of what, for want of a better word, we'll call anger. There are manic-depressive (or paranoid-schizophrenic?) bits of recrimination and regret here and there – mood lighteners in which individual players (or duos) seem to lament their previous unhappiness, but propitiation doesn't last too long before there's another round. Moving this from academe to another arena, I am reminded that sex, religion, and politics are (or used to be) taboo subjects in Navy wardrooms, since these topics so often lead to disagreements. One might view most of Hyla's Quartet – which is played without formal pause, and which consumes a bit less than 15 minutes - in comparable terms. Yet at the end there is a chorale of sorts that brings a measure of solace and consolation. It's not as radiant or confident as, say, the end of Sofia Gubaidulina's "Offertorium" (which is much more directly indebted to Bach), but it provides some resolution and a hint, at least, of hope.

It is a strong testimony to the Ciompi Quartet that their performance on the 19th was so compelling. The audience responded positively, perhaps as much to the playing as to the work itself, and the composer beamed while taking a bow. If they do this right – and the CQ tends to do so – we'll hear Hyla's Fourth Quartet again. It's worth revisiting.

The concert began with Mozart and ended with Beethoven, so Hyla was the luncheon meat, of sorts. The top layer was Mozart's Quartet in A, K.464, a major score that seems to foretell a lot of Romanticism. It's hearty fare, and the players threw themselves into it with breathtaking passion. The ensemble continues to improve in technical terms and interpretively, too, and this was a marvelous performance, full of precise execution and an infinite variety of shadings and expression. There was more of the same in the evening's concluding work, the first "Rasumovsky" Quartet (in F, Op. 59/1) of Beethoven. The CQ essayed all the Beethoven works a while back, and the concerts were highlights of those seasons. This reading was so compelling, so engaging, that it might be time for them to revisit all of them once more. This was absolutely wonderful Beethoven playing, as good as one is likely to hear anywhere. That it was done by "our Quartet" was just one more bit of proof that the present ensemble – Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins, Jonathan Bagg, viola, and Fred Raimi, cello – is indeed one of our greatest regional treasures – a world-class bunch, for sure.

Two more concerts remain on this distinguished series – see http://cvnc.org/calendar/series/triangle/CiompiQuartet.htm for dates and details. Like the performance discussed above, these concerts will be given in the Nelson Music Room. Although the East Duke Building, in which the hall is located, was renovated to a certain extent several seasons ago, it remains a challenge for persons with disabilities, for the room is a long haul from the elevators in the adjoining building, and there are doors to negotiate on both ends of the second floor bridge that leads to East Duke. For information about access or special accommodations, call 919/684-4444.

Edited 11/21/05.