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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Choice Performance by the American String Quartet Uptown

The classical music world is just like the rock world, in the sense that the most interesting shows usually take place outside the big concert halls. Case in point: the American String Quartet at Manhattan School of Music uptown Sunday afternoon. The Borden Auditorium there has excellent acoustics and accommodated a pretty full house who had come out to see a decidedly non-stodgy program for an attractive $15. What gives? The American String Quartet are in residency there. On one hand, it’s hard to believe that their name wasn’t taken until the original members made it theirs in 1974 while still students at Juilliard; on the other, there was still plenty of snobbery in the old European guard at that point. The Quartet’s 37 year history since then speaks for itself.

This time out they played a slightly offbeat, absolutely fascinating program of Richard Strauss and Beethoven, opening with the sextet from Capriccio, the 1941 Strauss opera, augmented by Karen Dreyfus on viola and Alan Stepansky on cello. The concept is late Romantic orchestration of a baroque-style theme, sort of Strauss’ equivalent of Rachmaninoff beefing up late Renaissance Italian chamber works. It’s probably more interesting from an architectural point of view than it is to hear, although for that reason it’s probably a lot of fun to play. And that’s what the Quartet had with it, but with plenty of old world vibrato and careful attention to the endless exchanges of voices. Violist Daniel Avsholomov seized the chance to fire off some deliciously shivery filigrees early on; Stepansky got to burn plenty of high-tension, low-register amperage as the piece went on.

The other Strauss work was an eye-opening septet arrangement of the Metamorphosen. With Metropolitan Opera bassist Timothy Cobb joining the ensemble, would this alternate version, posthumously discovered in 1990 in a sketch by the composer, be starker and darker than the fullscale tone poem for string orchestra? Not really. The overall balance and the alternate voices of the seven strings delivered a pillowy lushness that sounded like a considerably larger group, credit being due to both the composer and the ensemble. The piece, written as bombs were falling on Germany, is a requiem of sorts for a cosmopolitan Europe (or at least the romantic notion of a cosmopolitan Europe) gone forever. What metamorphosis there is develops very subtly, pulsing with a hypnotic swirl, finally quoting Beethoven as it reaches the brief dirge that ends it. It was a feast of minute timbral contrasts: violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney worked tones with such depth and clarity that it seemed as if there were a couple of oboes in the group.

Is Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130 the greatest of all works for string quartet? Some would say that: it’s also cruelly difficult to play. But this group first completed their Beethoven cycle decades ago, and they have it in their fingers, going deep into it for an especially revealing, emotionally charged performance. They let the rather tongue-in-cheek initial movements speak for themselves with a matter-of-factness which gave away absolutely no inkling of the fireworks in store. The little German dance that’s been used as a backdrop for a million PSA’s on NPR was delivered with an unexpected tinge of Teutonic gravitas. By contrast, the famous Cavatina was anything but weepy: its hushed somber restraint packed a quietly mighty wallop. And then they dug into the original conclusion, the Grosse Fugue, with its maze of interwoven polyphony and jarring tonalities that sound almost as radical now as they did in 1822. Nobody got offstage without breaking a sweat after this one, especially cellist Wolfram Koessel, leaping across the fingerboard with equal parts fire and aplomb. It falls to the violist to blaze through the highest point of the concluding crescendo: Avshalomov didn’t allude to it visually, but there’s no doubt that he was grinning inside.

These Manhattan School of Music concerts are a bargain (they have a whole slate of jazz as well as chamber and orchestral music), and they’re easy to get to (straight uptown on the 1 train to 125th Street; exit the back of the train if you’re coming from downtown and walk three blocks back to 122nd). Don’t rule out another similarly exciting program from the American String Quartet there this season.

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September 18, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Old Ideas, New Insight from the American String Quartet

At the American String Quartet’s concert last night at Merkin Hall, a small handful of Bach practice pieces threatened to upstage a late Beethoven quartet and then Bartok’s immortal String Quartet No. 6. That at first might seem like a sure sign of trouble, but let’s let violist Daniel Avshalomov explain. From his program notes: “Despite the luxury of our repertory, if we don’t borrow Bach we never get to play it – not to mention that the composer himself constantly rearranged music of his own and of others.” Avshalomov was referring to his arrangement of three preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which the ensemble played with flair, unselfconscious intensity and extraordinarily fresh insight. Avshalomov was right on the money by making the case for those works as being ideal for string quartet. Today, most of us who know these pieces think of them as organ works. However, Bach probably didn’t write them for the organ: instead, it’s more likely that he intended them for the harpsichord, since most of the organs of his era were already tuned to something different than even intonation, i.e. the modern piano scale that Bach championed, to which a harpsichord can be tuned – or not. Yet a harpsichord can’t sustain the pieces’ longest notes. Not only does a string quartet have what’s essentially infinite sustain: a string arrangement allows for subtleties of attack and timbre that a harpsichordist or organist can only dream of.

So with a not-so-simple shift from single instrument to quartet, these pieces took on a whole new life. The Prelude and Fugue for 4 Voices in F (BWV 857) suddenly had unanticipated, dancing liveliness…and stark grandeur from cellist Wolfram Koessel, as he carried what would be a pedal line in an organ arrangement. By contrast, the Prelude and Fugue for 5 Voices in B-flat Minor (BWV 867) had a plaintive Vivaldiesque gravitas; the Prelude and Fugue for 4 Voices in G Minor (BWV 885) offset jaunty precision with apprehensive call-and-response. Can someone please commission some more of these? Avant-garde ensembles jump through hoops with electronics and everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to breathe new life into works like these, when in this case all it took was an ambitious violist and his like-minded compatriots to appropriate them and make them indelibly their own.

How did they do Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, Op. 135? Briskly and confidently, yet with meticulous attention to dynamics. They’ve done this piece, and for that matter the whole Beethoven cycle, umpteen times, yet this performance was bright and crisp and obviously a labor of love. The lively pulse of the opening Allegretto reached a high point with the end of the scherzo that closes the second movement, vivid to the point where the entire audience got the joke. Conventional wisdom is that the chilling, anguished series of tritones and their permutations in the concluding movement are also a joke, albeit an inside one. An alternative viewpoint, reinforced by this performance, is that they’re a cruel and possibly deathly irony: “Must we? Yes, we must.” And things don’t look good.

Things got even more bleak with the Bartok. It’s a shattering piece of music, one of the darkest gems in the string quartet repertory; like the Beethoven, this group knows it well. Spine-tingling moments abounded: understated savagery when the sarcastic, somewhat OCD march theme of the second movement reappeared in the third, or its chilling minimalist modernism as violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney played dissonant microtones off each other, Carney sometimes reaching for a pianissimo so ethereal it was almost inaudible. Koessel’s matter-of-factness with the elegaic, closing pizzicato riff underscored its early WWII-angst with a quiet mournfulness that was impactful to the extreme. Fans of acclaimed ensembles like the American String Quartet tend to take them for granted. But we shouldn’t: there were actually some empty seats in the hall last night.

May 2, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The American String Quartet with Natsumi Kuboyama at the Fabbri Library, NYC 5/12/10

Eighteen-year-old Japanese pianist Natsumi Kuboyama, the winner of all sorts of competitions and a performer since the age of six, opened last night’s program at upper East Side hideaway the Fabbri Library with the Sinfonia from Bach’s C Minor Partita. With a surprisingly forceful attack in the opening measures, she showed some moxie that otherwise never made itself known during the rest of her solo performance. Instead, she showed off a turbo-hydramatic legato and world-class articulation throughout perfect if perfectly safe renditions of two Chopin works, the Ballade in F, Op. 38 and the Andante Spinato and Grand Polonaise Brillante, a schlocky Japanese rock ballad and then, most strikingly, the bracingly modernist, otherworldly, Toru Takamitsu-esque Prelude by Kunihiro Nakamura.

To fans of classical and new music alike, the American String Quartet needs no introduction, combining an avant garde enthusiast’s passion and counterintuitive intelligence with a historically-informed purism and a seemingly effortless technical skill. Effortless, possibly, because, as violist Daniel Avshalomov opined, they play the most exciting repertoire anywhere. Last time we caught them they were tackling the abrasive intensity of Irving Fine along with Robert Sirota’s anguished, haunting 9/11 Triptych. This time out, they ran through a pleasantly familiar program with special flair and an unaffected sensitivity to joy. The highlight was the Schubert Quartetsatz in C Minor, D. 70s, which as Avshalomov reminded was as close to a complete string quartet as Schubert ever wrote (he left behind only this first movement). Ablaze with unpredictable counterpoint and gemlike melody, it left no doubt as to how much fun it is to play: it is a team effort with star turns for everyone. When cellist Wolfram Koessel’s delightfully casual, growling undertones led the rest of the ensemble into the final series of little exchanges, it was nothing short of exquisite.

They also brought Kuboyama out of her shell with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat, Op. 44. Avshalomov explained the piece as Schumann’s unabashedly delighted response to having discovered what a piano and a string quartet can do together – it gave Kuboyama the chance to take her game up a level, notably throughout its many nocturnal, cantabile ripples and bends, towards which she seems to have a natural inclination. The rest of the ensemble romped through the call-and-response volleys of the opening Allegro Brillante, gave the swells of the second movement’s march an apt epic grandeur, barrelled through the playful dance of the Scherzo and made the most of the brilliant bittersweetness of the finale.

They closed with the first of the “late” Beethoven Quartets, Op. 127 in E-flat. “After the first part, you might imagine all the lights turned off, especially in this room,” Avshalomov suggested, which considering the medieval wood-paneled ambience, made sense. After they’d negotiated the tricky waves of the Maestoso Allegro, the Adagio provided a warmly cantabile architecture for violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney to embellish with a silvery vibrato, Avshalomov and Koessel each enhancing the plaintiveness in the lower registers. After all that, the symphonic crescendos of the Scherzando Vivace and the sterner, somewhat heroic Allegro finale were delivered with equal amounts spot-on precision and gusto. The crowd snapped out of their reverie and hoped for an encore, but by now it was ten in the evening and time for wine and snacks. The American String Quartet’s next two concerts are at Bargemusic on May 15 at 8 PM, repeating on May 16 at 3 PM with music of Mozart and Shostakovich along with Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” This is it for the Fabbri Library’s season, a sonically and visually delightful (and refreshingly friendly) space whose concert series will continue in the fall.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment