Concert Review: The American String Quartet Plays Robert Sirota, Irving Fine and Others at Bargemusic, Brooklyn NY 4/26/09
The American String Quartet had played the Brooklyn debut of Manhattan School of Music President Robert Sirota’s 9/11-themed Triptych suite the previous night. Looking across the river at Manhattan from inside the barge the following afternoon, the Twin Towers’ absence became more and more striking as the first movement built to a frantic, chaotic, horror-stricken crescendo of tritones and dissonance. From an audience perspective (particularly as witnessed by someone who was three blocks away when Tower Two blew up), the music was viscerally harrowing. Lucid Culture puts up a year-end “best New York concerts” list, and while being far from definitive, you can bet this performance will be on it.
Sirota was in New York on 9/11 and over the following months, writing the suite in tandem with Deborah Patterson’s painting of the same name – the artists’ intent was for the music to reinforce the painting and vice versa. To say that both are impactful would be a ridiculous understatement. The suite’s first movement, Desecration began with a shock, immediately followed by frenetic anguish that eventually fell apart, leading to a mournful solo by violinist Peter Winograd and eventually an evocation of car alarms (Sirota imagined that the destruction of the towers would have set off every one of them in Manhattan, an insult added to injury that thankfully didn’t occur) followed by a brief, single siren played on violin, fading into the distance.
The second movement, Lamentation began stark and modernist, growing more insistent, anguish finally turning to outrage, the impossibility of being able to fathom the enormity of the event intensely and vividly captured by a tentative cello line eventually passed to the other instruments, ending with a simple, defeated fade to solo violin. It’s not known how deeply the composer was able to investigate the mystery surrounding the tragedy, or whether this is simply a rendering of the city’s collective emotional state.
At last, some consonance appeared in the final movement, Prayer, reaching for solace and not finding it, interestingly with less of a feeling of communion and inclusiveness than there was at the time. While the months afterward brought out in many respects a beautiful and unforgettable period of camaraderie and compassion among New Yorkers, the conclusion of Sirota’s work rightfully maintains a persistent and unavoidable sense of loss. As riveting and heartbreaking as the piece is to witness in concert, one can only imagine how difficult it must be to play, especially for a New York group such as this, but the musicians didn’t let on.
The rest of the bill was a thicket of knotty cerebrality, but the Quartet accentuated its emotion and also its frequent good humor. They’d opened with Irving Fine’s 1952 String Quartet, an astonishing and powerfully Stravinskian work delivering many of the tropes of Romanticism in a completely different language, jeweled with suspense, horror-movie cadences and complete defiance in places. Winograd related an amusing anecdote about how his father, also a noted musician, knew Fine, who was notoriously prickly. After hearing the piece, the story made perfect sense. The ensemble also tackled Henry Cowell’s strange and often boisterously witty, improvisationally-driven String Quartet No. 3, the “Mosaic,” named for its interwoven, deceptively simple themes designed to be repeated as the performers see fit. They closed with Walter Piston’s String Quartet No. 1, another work which cast numerous codas and cadenzas straight out of Brahms or Beethoven straight into the drink where they landed dazed. Did Mingus know Piston’s work? One would think so from hearing this piece.
Shock of shocks, the barge wasn’t sold out, either. Fault of the depression? Maybe. The challenging nature of the program? That would be strange – Ives and his ilk don’t usually scare the crowds off. From the looks of it these days, Bargemusic could be something you could decide on at the spur of the moment, a wonderfully romantic idea.
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