Mimesis Ensemble Champions Stunning Contemporary Works at Carnegie Hall
If there’s anybody who doesn’t think that the contemporary string quartet repertoire is one of the world’s most exhilarating, they weren’t onstage or in the crowd last night at Carnegie Hall. In a multi-composer bill along the same lines as what the Miller Theatre does, Mimesis Ensemble staged a program featuring works of four current composers – Anna Clyne, Alexandra du Bois, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Mohammed Fairouz – to rival any Shostakovian thrills filling the halls further up Broadway.
These were dark, moody, otherworldly thrills, first from Clyne’s rhythmic suite Prima Vulgaris (meaning “evening primrose”), delivered with verve by violinists Alex Shiozaki and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir. She, in particular, is a player who relishes low tonalities, who’s not afraid to dig in and go deep into the well, taking charge to the point where she was essentially leading the ensemble. Austerity punctuated by pregnant pauses built to hints of an English reel, a long passage that gave Levinson a launching pad for vividly plaintive unease, then a pensive microtonal romp over an ominous cello drone. Tension-packed runs down a memorably uncertain scale set off an increasingly agitated series of variations that ended surprisingly quietly, but no less hauntingly. In its troubled way, it’s a stunning piece of music.
As was du Bois’ String Quartet No. 3, Night Songs, inspired by the journals of Holocaust memoirist and victim Esther Hillesum. As one would expect from a suite inspired by a philosophically-inclined bon vivant murdered at 29 by the Nazis, it has a wounded, elegaic quality. Dread and apprehension are everywhere, even in its most robust moments. It’s less a narrative than a series of brooding crescendos leading to horror, whether sheer terror or heart-stopping stillness. The melody and shifting motifs don’t move a lot, hinting and sometimes longing for a consonance that’s always out of reach. Levinson once again took centerstage with a series of raw chords, setting off a scurrying, pell-mell passage that led to keening overtones and then distantly menacing swoops. Hints of a dance gave no inkling of the considerably different tangent the piece would take as it cruelly but gracefully wound down. The audience exploded afterward.
The program wasn’t limited to string quartets. Roumain was best represented by an intricately woven, lively, dancing, George Crumb-inspired work played by a wind quintet of clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, oboeist Carl Oswald, bassoonist Brad Balliett and flutist Jonathan Engle, with Jason Sugata’s horn calm in the center of the storm.
Fairouz, who amid innumerable projects is reinvigorating the venerable art-song catalog, likes to collaborate with poets (maybe because his compositions tend to be remarkably terse and crystallized). For this he brought along poet David Shapiro, whose bittersweet Socratically-themed texts were fleshed out by a septet with strings and flute, strongly sung by soprano Katharine Dain and masterfully lowlit by Katie Reimer’s alternately vigorous and murkily resonant piano. Closely attuned to lyrical content, sometimes agitated, sometimes playful insistent, this quartet of songs seemed to mock death as much as dread it.
Mimesis Ensemble are at Merkin Concert Hall on May 4 at 8:30 PM playing a Lynchian elegy by Caleb Burhans, a cruelly sarcastic take on eco-disaster by David T. Little, powerful and historically aware chamber pieces by Fairouz as well as other works. Advance tickets are only $10 (students $5) and are highly recommended.
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