Sights and Sounds on Sundays: The Roger Hannay
by William Thomas Walker
December 10, 2006, Raleigh, NC: There was a bittersweet aspect surrounding the world premiere performance of Roger Hannay’s String Quartet No. 4 (“Quartet of Solos”) (1974) by the Ciompi String Quartet in the bright acoustics of the auditorium of the North Carolina Museum of Art. The Duke University-based ensemble had played both the composer’s Second and Third String Quartets in the past. Nancy and John Lambert planned to sponsor the premiere of the Fourth Quartet this year before Hannay succumbed to heart disease on January 27. This concert served as a memorial to their long-time mentor and friend and a celebration of his life and work as a composer and teacher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In brief remarks before the performance, J. Mark Scearce, Director of the Music Department at NC State University, used an elaborate joke to allude to the multiple layers of complexity in both Hannay the person, and in his works.
The concert program of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild had an extended note about the Fourth Quartet gleaned from My Book of Life (1988) by Roger Hannay. He abandoned his former styles in 1972 and “entered a new phase of lyricism and neo-romanticism in which free floating melodies soared over common-tone harmonic changes of 9th, 11th, and 13th chords…light-years beyond the exaggerated ‘modernism” he had been using. He became much more programmatic in his approach to composing. For his "Grande Concerte" (1972) for solo violin, he “drew a musical portrait of the rural itinerant fiddler touring 19th century small town ‘opera houses.’” Another commission for a piece for cello and tape turned up as an unaccompanied cello piece called "Concert Music for Cello" (1973). His daughter Dawn’s growing career as a professional violist led Hannay to compose for her a large unaccompanied virtuoso piece "O Solo Viola" (1974). The idea of somehow linking these solo works haunted him and he decided, “that if one more were added, they would (voila!) make up a string quartet. And, if properly modified, arranged, and edited into a spatially notated aleatoric score with a new set of ‘parts’ (... modifications of the original solos with carefully calculated rests inserted)” he would have his fourth quartet.
Each player pulled his chair away from the traditional close huddle. Leader Eric Pritchard played standing on the far left of the stage. Second violinist Hsiao-mei Ku stood against the back stage about 20 feet to the right. Cellist Fred Raimi sat about center stage in the curve of the piano that was to be used in the later Franck quintet. Violist Jonathan Bagg stood some distance toward the front, stage right. George Lam, a composer living in Durham and pursuing his Ph.D. in music composition at Duke University, sat dead-center on the front row and cued the players for the 20 points throughout the score where they had to meet for respective duets, trios, etc.
The wide spatial arrangement was essential to giving full value to the independent aspects of the solos. Plaintive notes on the viola opened the piece and the cello, second violin, and first violin began their solos in turn. The layering effects resulting from the overlapping sounds of the four strings were very intriguing. While some of the score seemed abstract and consisted of both eerie highs and unusual colors, there was plenty of tonal Romanticism in the cello part. An episode in which Raimi bowed a broad melody while simultaneously plucking the strings was memorable. It is hard enough to judge a new work by one of our “listener-friendly” composers such as John Adams or John Coriglano. Few listeners to many of Hannay’s works would list him with the easy-listening crowd. There was much that was stimulating and even appealing in his Fourth Quartet, but it will take several hearings to begin to grasp the work as a whole. Best of all, unlike too many modern composers, Hannay knew when a work was complete. His “Quartet of Solos” never overstayed its welcome.
Schubert’s lovely Quartetsatz in C Minor, D.703, launched the concert. This makes a fine opener, giving the players a nice warm up and, finishing quickly, allows for the seating of latecomers. The fleet and light touch of the opening and closing presaged the sound-world of Mendelssohn. Pianist Jane Hawkins joined the Ciompi String Quartet to end the concert with a beautifully played Piano Quintet in F Minor by César Franck. The balance between the piano and strings was near ideal. Great care was taken in fine graduations of dynamics and phrasing. Melvin Berger, in his Guide to Chamber Music, calls the quintet “one of the most passionate, dramatic, and stormy works in the entire repertoire.” He reports that Nadia Boulanger (who for a time seemed to have taught every major American composer except Howard Hanson) said it “contains more pianissimo (‘very, very soft’) and fortissimo (‘very, very loud’) than any other chamber work.” Hawkins and the Ciompis skirted the edge of “going over the top,” turning in a firmly focused interpretation that was not allowed to wallow in the composer’s sublimated eroticism. Some biographers — and Franck’s wife — suspected that the quintet depicted his passion for his beautiful student Augusta Holmes. The pianist for the premiere on January 17, 1880, was Camille Saint-Saëns, an old friend to whom Franck dedicated the quintet. He loathed the music so much he refused to accept the manuscript from the composer and stalked out of the hall.