in: Reviews

November 9, 2010

Praxis Quartet at Ashmont Hill

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The Ashmont Hill Chamber Music series has long since outgrown its “house concert” origins and now gives its concerts in Peabody Hall of Edwin J. Lewis’s elegant parish-house addition to Ralph Adams Cram’s neo-Gothic masterpiece, All Saints Church in Dorchester. On November 7, it presented the Praxis String Quartet, a young ensemble from New York, together with bass clarinetist Ken Thomson, in a mixed program of old and new work, including the local premiere of David Schober’s String Quartet and local composer Evan Ziporyn’s Be In, as well as Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet, op. 76 no. 4, and Ravel’s Quartet in F major.

The Praxis members, Esther Noh and Courtney Orlando, violins, Arthur Dibble, viola, and Brian Snow, cello, and perhaps not coincidentally Mr. Thomson as well, share a background of working extensively with the “downtown” and Brooklyn music scenes, with their strong elements of crossover among minimalist, rock, jazz and avant-garde classical idioms. They formed the quartet only in 2009, and so are still in the nascent stages of their ensemble life. In fact, as best we could determine from online references, this may be their first tour outside the New York area; they will be in Virginia in a few weeks with a different program. The Dorchester audience, therefore, got the opportunity to catch a potential rising star in the narrow yet congested firmament of string quartets. One is tempted to think of the Praxis as working in the space carved out by the Kronos Quartet, although Praxis’s stage appearance, whether because that’s how the group always does it or because of some residual impression of Boston as arch-conservative in these matters, was definitely in the traditional mold.

The opening work on the program was the Haydn “Sunrise”Quartet, one of his late masterworks in the genre he did more than anyone to launch, popularize and regularize, just as with his symphonies, trios and keyboard sonatas. We need not go into detail describing the music, as it is familiar enough. The things to stress about it are the irrefutable logic of its musical argument, the impeccable balance of brilliant and often erudite construction and ingratiating surface, and the exposure of every line and note — so terrifying for performers.

It is customary in mixed-period programs like this one to put a Haydn or Mozart quartet first, as if it were a pleasant curtain-raiser. And indeed, some of them, mostly early ones, are. One should be extremely circumspect, though, about doing that with late Haydn, without the kind of mutual security, common interpretive understanding, and idiomatic dedication that usually come with maturity as an ensemble. That’s where we found the Praxis coming up a little short on this occasion. Every member of the group makes a lovely sound, in the classically New York plummy, warm, muscular way (although Noh was comparatively lacking in carrying power), but oh! that exposure puts a premium on nano-precision. There were a few spots where something seemed just a tad off — either a one- or two-cent slippage of somebody’s intonation, or a flagging of proper Haydn-esque bounce. It didn’t help that Peabody Hall, intended to be a lecture room (from the look of it), was devoid of any dampening surface for the sound, making everything just a bit hyper and harsh. On the plus side, though, there were wonderful long-breathed lines from the Praxis in the slow movement, thrilling exposed octaves and high-style syncopation in the minuet. Generally speaking, this was a very fine performance; if Praxis wishes to make perfect, however, it will need to immerse itself in this repertoire the way the traditional quartets have done, or else it should concentrate on what sets it apart.

Miro’s The Tilled Field

What sets Praxis apart was well displayed in the remainder of the concert, focusing on 20th- and (by one method of counting) 21st-century work. David Schober is a young (36) faculty member at your correspondent’s alma mater. His Quartet, which dates from 2000 (counting this as still 20th century — no flame wars, please), is a response to several paintings by Joan Miró; the piece was commissioned by the Miró Quartet with Schaumburg funding. Schober’s approach is to translate the imagistic inspiration in purely musical formal terms, by which we mean it makes good musical sense even without the paintings in mind. His idiom is modern but thoroughly comprehensible, straightforwardly developed. Textures evoke concepts drawn from the pictures: for example, earthy ruggedness in the first movement, after Miro’s The Tilled Field, a farm scene with animals, where the music sometimes touches Bottom in a highly praiseworthy way.

The second-movement scherzo is the most substantial of the four, with strong rhythmic punch and some very effective rapid passages in harmonics, very well played. The slow movement, called “Constellations,” Mr. Schober informs, is based on a cycle-of-fifths structure, but this is deeply submerged. The music is, um, atmospheric, but had us thinking more of Van Gogh than Miró. The short finale had some wonderful effects, including its own exposed octave passages in viola and cello, and an almost Mendelssohnian elfin quality. The Praxis players, who will be recording the work, were here in top form and voice.

Evan Ziporyn has been equally noted in these precincts as composer and clarinetist, especially favoring the bass clarinet. (We once heard him on the contrabass clarinet — heavy artillery indeed.) As a composer, he has, like Lou Harrison, sought to integrate Western sounds with those of Bali. His quintet Be In (1991) for bass clarinet and string quartet doesn’t really do that but begins its rondo-like progression with a minimalist groove that opens up, with a descant in the second violin, and then thickens up to a pulsating multi-beat. It reminds us a bit of John Zorn or Guy Klucevsek. The bass clarinet is not treated as a soloist but adds a rich bottom to the massed strings. The bass clarinet part also indulges in many blue notes and typically modal or pentatonic licks, and Mr. Thomson was into this, body and soul — a thoroughly ingratiating as well as technically assured performance. This is the sort of crossover inspiration in which we surmise this ensemble excels, and it was clearly into it. The ending of the piece, we note, had more than a hint of La création du monde, nearly the alpha-point of classical crossover, and then closes with a classic pop fade-out: Ziporyn in demotic mode indeed.

The closer on this program was Ravel’s 1903 String Quartet in F major, a marvelous segue from Impressionism to proto-neoclassicism. Ravel’s genius for orchestration was here applied to one of the most austere instrumental combinations, and yet he produced a miracle of flickering color and formal compactness. The Praxis ensemble here discovered its inner sweetness and produced gorgeous tone and perfect balance. The extended scherzo was given in quicksilver fleetness, high sheen, and impressive pizzicato technique. The slow movement, like a ship sailing at night, glided purposefully but imperturbably, and the finale was an impressive summation of the whole. We need to call out an especially affecting solo turn by Snow in the slow movement, and superior dynamic shading by everyone throughout.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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