in: Reviews

July 17, 2017

Parkers Do Big Kernis and Brahms

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It’s been too long since the Parker Quartet played at Maverick Concerts. Its return on Sunday provided a welcome afternoon, including a couple of real novelties.

Stravinsky’s Concertino for string quartet, a piece of prime work from 1920, should not be a rarity, but it is, at least in Woodstock. The Parkers brought excitement, propulsive energy, powerful accents, and the very full sound this brief and concentrated music requires. I found it a total success.

Maverick is in the midst of a cycle of Aaron Jay Kernis’s three String Quartets, one per Sunday, played by three different ensembles. Unfortunately, I missed the First, played last week by the Chiara Quartet. The very large-scale Quartet No. 2, “Musica Instrumentalis,” from 1997 ran over 41 minutes in this outing. Each of the three movements is big and complex. In the first, Kernis fuses aspects of Renaissance dance with relatively contemporary idiom, the strong rhythms helping to carry along the music when it becomes most complex in harmony. The second movement, almost half the length of the piece, is an aching, haunting Sarabande with long-spun lyrical romantic lines interrupted by agitated dissonant interludes. It was a difficult task to make this music work on such a large canvas but on first hearing it seemed quite successful. It contained some of the most beautiful dissonances I’ve ever heard and a great deal of genuine emotion. The finale, according to Kernis, is based on the finale of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 3, and I could indeed hear echoes of that music, including some of what I’d call “quasi-quotes” in which I felt reflections of Beethoven’s original in rhythm and texture.

I was glad to make the acquaintance of this music, and of Kernis himself. He appeared on stage to share in the applause. I can’t count on myself to evaluate unfamiliar music, but it certainly sounded committed and the composer acted extremely happy.

Aaron Jay Kernis (file photo)

After intermission, Kernis  and Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt engaged in a brief discussion mostly centered on the Third Quartet which we are going to hear next week. The composer described it as more dissonant than the Second, more “Bartókian.” I’ll look forward to that, Platt asked Kernis if there was another quartet in the works and Kernis said there was indeed, expected next summer, for the Borromeo Quartet. That ensemble has often appeared at Maverick, although not this season, and we can guess what Platt will be asking them to come and play for us. I liked Kernis’s modest attitude.

The three Kernis Quartets are being coupled with the three quartets of Brahms, although not in order. The Parker program concluded with Brahms’s Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 67, his third and last. What went on in the performance was all good. Interestingly, the Parkers lightened their tone for this thick music, still giving it sufficient weight but making it relatively transparent.

If you’re ever wondering if what you are hearing might be Brahms, listen for syncopations, his hallmark. The Parker Quartet had an excellent grasp of this essential feature. I greatly enjoyed the organ-like sound of the Andante and the singing, emotional quality of the Agitato third movement. In the finale, a theme with variations, each variation was so vividly characterized that they seemed almost like separate pieces linked together, although of course the unity of the music was also maintained. A neat trick, and a gratifying conclusion.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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