in: Reviews

August 11, 2012

Admirable Debut of Monadnock Quartet

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One of several new features introduced at Monadnock Music this year by the new Artistic Director Gil Rose and Executive Director William Chapman is a resident string quartet, assembled afresh for the festival, making its first public appearance in this program at the historic Meeting House in Jaffrey Center, NH. Appearing twice this summer (in addition to the concert under review here, they perform tonight at Emmanuel Church in Dublin, NH), the quartet’s programs share in some of the themes of the 2012 Monadnock Festival: chamber music of Virgil Thomson (on both programs), and composers who have held fellowships at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, which is within the circle of towns that host the concert programs. Here the composer represented was Sebastian Currier.

The Monadnock Quartet includes three of Boston’s most experienced and best-known musicians, Charles Dimmick and Gabriela Diaz trading off the violin parts, and Rafael Popper-Keizer on the cello, and a younger newcomer, the Chinese violist Wenting Kang, who, though still a master’s degree candidate at the New England Conservatory, won an international viola competition in Tokyo in June. For its first concert appearance, the quartet chose Virgil Thomson’s String Quartet No. 1 and Sebastian Currier’s Quiet Time, for works representing the theme, and capped it off with Tchaikovsky’s infrequently heard String Quartet No. 3.

Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, and his Missouri boyhood, marked musically by his early career playing organ in the Baptist church, was reflected in many of his later works, through the quotation of Protestant hymn tunes or the creation of melodies of similar cut. Though he had already composed his first opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, to Gertrude Stein’s text, employing a musical language derived from hymnody, he was not yet developing hymn tunes directly as his raw material, as he was later to do in the Symphony on a Hymn Tune and in the film scores for The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River. The First String Quartet (1931) has little of this sense of his upbringing; indeed some of it is more contrapuntally intense that one normally attributes to him, possibly an effect of his studies with Nadia Boulanger. At the same time, and although Thomson was still living mostly in France in these years, the sound of the piece is predominantly American. Thomson himself referred to it as “neo-Romantic,” but not in the sense of imitating the composers of the previous century. His was the romanticism of the broad American prairies and the people who settled there. His approach is essentially tuneful in the intertwining lines of the first movement, perhaps with a shade more inkling of hymnody (though without quotation) in the Adagio. The third movement is a waltz — not a whirling, glittering dance from Paris or Vienna, but rather a more homespun country waltz, one that would be very much at home on the Great Plains. The finale, after a slow introduction, breaks into a joyous galop interspersed with coy sighing figures. Throughout this rarely heard piece, the Monadnock Quartet captured the range of moods, poignant to energetic, with a unified view of the score.

Sebastian Currier wrote Quiet Time at the MacDowell Colony in 2004. As the title suggests, it is not a big, assertive, noisy piece, but one that plays, mostly at sotto voce dynamics, with two very different kinds of sound. He had been working quite a lot with electronic media, which produce sonorities not available with acoustic instruments. For Quiet Time he created seven compact movements that aim to offer both acoustic and electronic sonorities — except that the “electronic” ones are in fact produced by the standard instruments of the string quartet, sometimes played with unusual techniques. Certainly there are a lot of harmonics, but much else besides. Some of the movements titles suggest images (“Time’s arrow,” with percussive effects at a slow pace), while others evoke special techniques of electronic manipulation (“Reverberation,” “Memory Filter”). The middle movement of the seven offers a title that is amusing partly because it is so perfectly accurate a description of the piece: “Two Chords Separated by a Scherzo.” The chords in question, low-pitched, dense, and quiet, are held for a time at the beginning before the scherzo launches itself and then return to the same dense sonority that is allowed to die away.

The extraordinary intricacy of the part-writing for the four players, and the varied performing techniques that they must keep bouncing off one another, made Quiet Time a fascinating sound mélange, one that was warmly applauded by the audience that filled the Jaffrey Center Meeting House. Currier himself not only expressed his great satisfaction with the performance but added that it was almost impossible to conceive that this polished and extremely musical performance of his challenging work could possibly be the very first public outing of a new string quartet.

The concert closed with Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3, far less often heard than his first quartet. It is a big piece, frequently almost approaching symphonic scope, sustained by just the four stringed instruments. Tchaikovsky wrote it at least in part as a memorial tribute to Ferdinand Laub, a violinist friend who had taken part in the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets and later expressed the feeling that the work was rather grim. It did not feel that way in this warmly impassioned performance, though the third movement, “Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto,” surely expressed the composer’s sense of loss. The finale was the most “driven” piece, aiming, it seems, to sound fully symphonic and putting quite a challenge on the shoulders of the performers. They carried it off with panache.

The Monadnock Quartet’s second program tonight includes more Virgil Thomson and the only really standard repertory that they are playing this summer, the Ravel Quartet. But the first outing was so entirely satisfactory — and far more than that — that I, for one, hope they these players can continue as an ensemble and bring more such stimulating and beautifully played programs.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for a lovely and accurate piece of criticism. I could go on and on about Wenting Kang’s viola playing, assured, graceful and perfectly balanced.The entire quartet sounds as if they had been playing together for longer than any one of them has been alive. A very welcome debut!

    Comment by Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt — August 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm

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