We have not hitherto been to a concert in the Pusey Room, a cozy (seats maybe 50) conference-cum-recital space on the second floor of Harvard’s Memorial Church. Under the auspices of the church’s Composer-in-Residence Carson Cooman, the occasional recital series brought together on January 14 an otherwise ad hoc quartet of strings —Ethan Wood and Megumi Stohs, violins, Sarah Darling, viola, and Josh Packard, cello —in a program comprising the premieres of three American string quartets, by Thomas L. Read, Arnold Rosner and Kyle Gann.
Cooman chose the pieces well, as all three of them are high-quality work by composers not frequently performed hereabouts. (We confess that, except for Gann, we were unfamiliar with the other composers). Read (b. 1938) is now retired from teaching at the University of Vermont but remains active as a violinist and conductor; Rosner (b. 1945) teaches at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn; and Gann (b. 1955), familiar for his twenty years writing on music for the Village Voice, also continues to teach at Bard College. Despite their impeccable academic credentials, this trio is anything but “academic” in their expressive output. There was, however, a coincidental superficial commonality among the pieces: all were in one movement, and all began with a slow exposition of their basic materials. The Read and Rosner, at eleven minutes apiece, were balanced by the Gann at a bit over their combined length.
Of the three works, Read’s String Quartet No. 1, played first (and last as well: it was repeated owing to a glitch resulting in a lost last page of music), had the most complex history. Read has, you see, written four string quartets; this one, done in 1957, lay dormant and was revised in 1984 and again in 2008 and only now saw the light of, well, not exactly day. A composer friend sitting next to us expressed totally disingenuous amazement that a work written at age nineteen could have gone unperformed for so long. Be that as it may, and without speculating on how much of it reflects the teenager who started it or the septuagenarian who finished it, it is a strong piece, full of drama and lyricism, despite its dodecaphonic underpinnings. (Read’s more recent output runs to the neo-tonal; you can listen to snippets on his website here.)
Read’s idiom in this piece reminds us a bit of Andrew Imbrie or early Easley Blackwood — it integrates non-tonal sources within a clear format of traditional forms and developmental gestures. Although it is in one movement, with common thematic and motivic materials throughout, the work is divided into five sections, of which the first resembles the slow introduction and allegro exposition of a typical sonata form; the second and third stand in for scherzo (not precisely) and slow movement; the fourth is a declamatory interlude with a series of mini-cadenzas for each instrument; and the fifth is a sort-of-a-kind-of-a recapitulation, with rhythmic alterations, leading up to a big consonant chord, before — you really didn’t think a nineteen-year-old twelve-tone writer was going to leave it at that, did you? — the last page (glad for the repetition that gave us the punch line!) brought it back to where it should have been. The performances were superb, something we can generalize for the whole recital. We especially note the firm projection and sturdy tone of first violinist Wood and the remarkable tone and security of violist Darling at the highest reaches of her instrument.
Arnold Rosner is a composer of the old school (example: he gives his compositions opus numbers, 118 in the case of his String Quartet No. 6), who upholds the traditions of expressivity, structure, communication and immediacy. He is also a polemicist of considerable force, unafraid of provocation — see here for his manifesto on why he hates Mozart. There was no bomb-throwing in his quartet, and in fact his program note admits that he even used some twelve-tone elements in it (not that the piece is itself dodecaphonic, or that even if it were that would have thrust him, in 2004, into anything like an avant-garde posture). His quartet is lyrical, with a constantly evolving twining melodic line punctuated by gentle chords. The score also features prominent use of open-fifth sonorities which, when combined with a certain modal flavor in the melody, evokes a bit of Alan Hovhaness. Although the level of dynamic and textural density in this work was less varied than it might have been, it benefited through the use of more coloristic effects of string writing — nothing like advanced technique, but deft use of sul ponticello passages, for example — than the other two works on the program. Its ending, on a soft pizzicato, was highly effective and apposite (Aside: we’ve experienced too many works written over the last half-century where the ending was so seemingly arbitrary or an afterthought that we’re always grateful to see one well planned).
The intended last piece on the program (which became the penultimate one for reasons already mentioned) was Gann’s The Light Summer Land, written this past summer on commission from Cooman for this series. Gann’s work is the most obviously au courant of the three, with its origins in post-minimalist process considerations. As he explained in his note, Gann has lately gotten a bit bored with listening to his machine clack all the way through the processes he has devised (Brahms, that proto-process composer, might tsk-tsk in disapproval), and so he “fast forwards” to sample how it works out at different points. Feel free not to take this explanation seriously; why do composers feel the need to create mechanistic explanations for the exercise of artistic discretion? At any rate, Gann describes the outcome as like a set of variations, and so it is, with two basic elements underpinning everything: a wandering scalar tune first elaborated by the viola and eventually taken up by the others, and a nodule of a motif consisting of a descending major second with the bottom note repeated. There are moments when a latent pentatonicism bubbles up, and the harmonization of the little motif brings us into an Ivesian New Englandy soundscape. It kept us enthralled throughout. It also gave ample opportunity to hear these four musicians in perfect sympathy with one another — if they’re not an official string quartet already, they should consider becoming one. To what we said earlier we should add praise for Stohs, here taking the first chair, and Packard, each of whom projected a rich and shimmering sound.
At the end, there was one element of welcome bomb-throwing by Rosner: after several rounds of applause for the performers, he led a bit of a composers’ revolt by bringing Messrs. Read and Gann up with him to the front for their own well-deserved bows. This sort of thing should be encouraged, above and beyond the perfunctory nod to and from the composer at each piece. After all, without the composers, there would be no reason to applaud the performers.
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