In company with the North Carolina Museum of Art's "Porsche by Design" exhibit of automobiles built by the iconic sports-car maker, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild presented the Quercus Quartet in a program of music which, like the cars, emphasized stylistic design, innovation, and speed.
The quartet, consisting of violinist Carol Chung, violist David Marschall, 'cellist Bonnie Thron, and pianist Frank Pittman, opened its program with the 1933 String Trio by Jean Françaix, composed only two years after Ferdinand Porsche founded his German auto-manufacturing company. In his verbal program notes, Marschall noted the similarity between the autos' designs and Françaix's music: "faster and lighter." Indeed, three of the Trio's four movements (Allegretto vivo, Scherzo, Andante, and Rondo) are "pedal-to-the-metal" in their tempi. The first movement rode its perpetual-motion gear all the way through its abrupt pizzicatto ending, while the Scherzo, alternating lyrical fragments with syncopated figures, ended with a sudden, hard-braking stop. Speed had to be lowered in order to take the graceful melodic curves of the Andante, but the final laps of the Rondo required even more virtuosity, with pizzicato chords in the 'cello and octave passages for the violin.
Before playing Karel Husa's Variations for Piano Quartet (1984), the Quartet played a number of excerpts designed to help the audience understand more of what they were about to hear. This approach was beneficial, because this is difficult music to hear, as well as to play. It demands total control of their instruments by the performers and an openness to challenging sonorities and compositional elements by the listeners. While two listeners opted to leave during the performance, they were in the distinct minority, as the rest were willing to have their musical horizons extended by Husa's music. Members of the composer's family were present; only a recent indisposition prevented the nonagenarian himself from attending.
This music is simultaneously colorful and disturbing, introspective and aggressive, cerebral and physical. The "variations" title is misleading; the six movements are not variations on any kind of musical theme, but rather on compositional and chordal elements introduced by the piano at the work's opening measures. The variations are not audible, but can be understood only by an analysis of the score. The Quartet was more than equal to that score's formidable technical demands, including quarter-tone pitches, martellato bowings, and inside-the-piano excursions by Pittman's hands. Recurring elements included the bell-like sonorities of the piano and a string triad of which the third and fifth of the chord are altered by a quarter-tone higher (the third) or a quarter-tone lower (the 5th). Hearing this sound for the first time reminded me enough of the sound of a train's whistle that I immediately had to call it "the Amtrak Chord." There is much musical dialogue in these variations; while that dialogue is often disagreeable and violent, it is no more so than much of today's political dialogue. In this sense, this music is very much music of our time.
After the bumpy ride of Husa's Variations, a tune-up was necessary before the Quartet closed its program with Bohuslav Martinů's Piano Quartet No. 1. The first and last movements of this 1942 work gave Pittman more opportunity to display his technique; like many of Martinů's works, this quartet contains substantial music for the keyboard. The opening Poco Allegro movement features stretto-like parallel chords first heard on the piano and then imitated by the strings. The second movement, Adagio, began with the strings only, but an increasing tempo led to a 'cello cadenza which moved without pause into the final movement, Allegretto poco moderato, with its rapid piano figurations, its conjuring of Erik Satie's Gymnopodies and some barcarolle-like passages, and its scintillating arpeggiated final measures.
Here, as in the rest of the program, each member of the Quercus Quartet ("Quercus" being the Latin for "oak tree," showing the group's Raleigh genesis) proved to be a musician possessing not only superb technique, but also interpretive artistry. Thanks to the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and the North Carolina Museum of Art for bringing this infrequently-heard music to their audiences.
This RCMG series at the NCMA continues on March 2 with Asheville-based Pan Harmonia. For details, click here.