The New York composer/performer collective Counter)Induction has an intriguing collection of new and relatively new chamber works, Group Theory, just out. The quintet of Steven Beck on piano, Miranda Cuckson on violin, Benjamin Fingland on clarinet, Sumire Kudo on cello and Jessica Meyer on viola tackle an ambitious and challenging series of works and pull them off with flair and conscientious attention to emotional content. The most unabashedly atonal of the lot is a piece by Salvatorre Sciarrino which is more of a study in textures and waves of shifting dynamics than melody. The real knockout here is Kyle Bartlett’s Bas Relief, a grimly resolute diptych unexpectedly juxtaposing twisted boogie woogie piano bass, icy upper register piano glimmers, apprehensively fluttering strings and a chilling crescendo anchored by an ominous bass clarinet drone. It’s avant noir in the best possible sense of those two words; as with many of the works here, the quintet’s somewhat unorthodox instrumentation enhances its plaintive edge.
Right up there with it is Douglas Boyce’s triptych Deixo Sonata. Spacious fugal tradeoffs between voices lead to a creepy dance of sorts that quickly descends to a furtive sway, rises to a crescendo with hints of ragtime and old-world Romanticism and then a neat false ending. Ryan Streber’s Partita, for solo cello utilizes a similar architecture, sostenuto forebearance versus insistent staccato, steady arpeggiated cadences punctuated by the occasional dramatic flourish or chordally-charged crescendo. Lee Hyla’s rather minimalist Ciao Manhattan is considerably less sad than the title might imply: pensive hints of the baroque and graceful, sustained layers of strings shift to a simple but affecting piano/violin duet that ends on a surprise note.
Eric Moe’s Dead Cat Bounce (Wall Street slang for a stock on the way down that’s recovered for just a second) follows a jauntily bittersweet trajectory, from a rondo to a sort-of-tango to a fullscale dance, the entire ensemble in and out of the melee, winding out on a puckishly ironic note. The longest work here, Erich Stem’s four-part suite Fleeting Thoughts juxtaposes a terse, balletesque pulse with icily moody piano-and-string interludes that eventually leads to a richly satisfying noir bustle on the way out. Frequently dark, challenging, compelling music utilizing an imaginative mix of devices and genres from across the decades to the present: watch this space for upcoming NYC concerts.
A Boston institution (and once a New York one during their two-year Lincoln Center residency a while back), the Borromeo String Quartet played Webern, Bartok and Beethoven with a warm familiarity and a soulfulness last night at the upper west side’s Music Mondays series. They know this material, and they get it.
Anton Webern’s Langsam Satz was the opening piece and was delivered with late-summer lustre, heavy on the vibrato. It’s basically an increasingly complex series of permutations on a simple, memorable four-note riff, making its way around the ensemble as it gently shifted shape. The Tschaikovskian second movement featured strikingly boisterous pizzicato phrasing from violist Mai Motobuchi, after which the group brought it back down to a warm cantabile mood.
Bartok’s Sixth String Quartet made a sharp contrast, and received a marvelously subtle treatment. This one doesn’t have the outright wrath of much of the composer’s work but it’s full of satire and a pervasive unease that quickly makes itself utterly inescapable. If Sartre’s Huis Clos had a soundtrack, this could be it. Cellist Yeesun Kim plowed deeply into the resonant introduction and brought the rest of the ensemble along as they alternated ominous atmospherics and slightly furtive embellishments. Violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong built a distant whirlwind on the second movement; the third, a twisted dance, had alarms going off, signaling the approach of what appears to be a satirical version of the kind of pretty nocturne exemplified by the Webern. A series of perfectly precise violin overtones signaled in the completely counterintuitive, calm ending: seventy years later, Bartok is still a car-length or two ahead of most composers.
They closed with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 92. For the composer, it was something of a landmark, signaling the development of a wholly original sound, in the process shifting the paradigm away from the predictable call-and-response of Haydn that he’d emulated up to that point. It’s a clinic in tension between apprehensive, fiery, Vivaldiesque crescendos and smoothly swaying teutonic phrasing, darkly shadowed by its lower tonalities, and the quartet let those contrasts speak for themselves. In a way, it was the perfect piece to follow the first two because it synthesizes the emotional content explored by each: Bartok’s disquiet and Webern’s optimistic solidity. And like them, it ended warmly, in the style of a Bach cantata: a somewhat triumphant song without words that tacked an unexpectedly happy ending on after all foreshadowing to the contrary. With its brisk dynamic changes and fluid runs that border on the torrential, it’s not easy to play, but the Borromeos made it seem that way. The next Music Mondays concert at the dual-congregation church at 93rd and Broadway is December 13 featuring the Sospiro Winds plus violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Aaron Wunsch, playing music of Gyorgi Ligeti.