The Meymandi Concert Hall performance of Mendelssohn's Octet by the Alexander and Ciompi Quartets, reviewed elsewhere in these archives, was the second rendition of the work in less than 24 hours by these fine ensembles. The night before, in Reynolds Theatre, the Ciompi Quartet hosted the visiting San Francisco group, and on that occasion Duke's residents took the lead positions in the program's grand finale. The Durham concert was otherwise different from Raleigh's, for it began with the second of Mozart's "Prussian" Quartets, written for Frederick William II, and included the nominal world premiere of Sidney Marquez Boquiren's Pagsamba ("Worship"), an extended work in five movements for string quartet that is the latest of the Ciompi's remarkable series of contributions to contemporary literature. Boquiren was born in 1970 in Manila, just months after this writer's first visit to his homeland. We've heard his music on other occasions at Duke, and as it happens the finale of Pagsamba was given earlier this year in Europe, during a contemporary music festival. The November 10 performance was its first complete public airing, aside from a run-through on the CQ's First Course program at the Duke University Museum of Art on November 8.
The score is huge and may have been a bit of a challenge for the large audience-one of the biggest we've seen at any CQ event. Boquiren uses the time-honored palette in new and different ways that many mainstreamers may have found, at times, bizarre. There is a lot of repetition in the piece, too, which hammers home the composer's points and which may prove to be more meaningful as we become more familiar with his musical language. The composer's program notes explain that the new piece is "structured as a ritual... consisting of [a] 'Call to prayer,' ... 'Praise and Thanksgiving,' ... [and] 'Benediction.'" These three parts are interleaved with two "meditations" that clearly reflect upon-and in some respects prefigure-the other movements. Drones and a sort of call-and-response approach are hallmarks of the piece, which involves a lot of fairly aggressive passages, meant to command the attention of the people the score purports to invite "to a place or state of worship." The work is rich in technical details-and full of technical demands on the players. The first four movements are also in a style that is radically different from the finale, which-as noted-has been played separately, in Europe. That finale is in turn in four distinct parts, but the duration of this movement can vary from performance to performance, for its components are "indicated by a range of time or by a range of the number of repetitions." Boquiren has clearly packed a whole lot into "Pagsmaba."
At first hearing, Pagsamba seemed to fall into two distinct and different pieces, and I suspect I am not alone in thinking that it might have worked better in concert to have had the first four movements or the last one but perhaps not all of them together at one sitting. This does a terrible disservice to a young composer whose work I have long admired, but he's made a huge piece lasting 42 minutes that his audiences (and potential performers) may find off-putting without some pruning. Those Europeans may have had the right idea, even though the piece probably wasn't finished when the last movement was done there. If Boquiren is determined to have it all done on one concert, I'd propose that the first four movements be followed by a brief pause or perhaps an intermission and that the finale be given after the break.
Another critic - off duty - was somewhat less kind, commenting that Boquiren's "Benediction" suggested to him the damnation of souls in hell. To each his own in music! I'll reserve my "last judgment" for another day, so for now let's simply say that this is clearly a major work from an outstanding young composer whose mind is brimful with ideas and new approaches to making concert music. With that in mind, here's hoping that the Ciompis will play the work again--as suggested above, or with any revisions the composer may elect to make--so his public can have another shot at it. He--and we--deserve no less.