in: Reviews

June 26, 2010

Biava Bids Farewell with Refreshingly Unusual Program

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After 12 years of national and international performing, including eight seasons at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, the Biava String Quartet gave its last performance on June 25 in Rockport’s impressive new Shalin Liu Performance Center. Aside from the youth of the players themselves—with an average age of barely 30, they theoretically still have many years of playing ahead of them, what made this lively farewell concert particularly notable was the refreshingly unusual program they chose for their final appearance.

First on the program was Darius Milhaud’s String Quartet No. 7, Op. 87. With its modal melodies, lush and bright polytonal harmonies, and neo-Classical structure, it sits squarely in the sound-realm of early 2oth-century French composition. Like most music from that tradition, this work requires subtly hued sonorities to give it depth. Though the Quartet played the work with jauntiness and a fine ear for intonation, its somewhat undifferentiated sense of ensemble balance was too rich and weighty. The players never quite achieved the gauze-like textural transparency and breezy bounce that bring this charming music to life, instead settling for a sonic sameness that kept the piece from really getting off the ground.

However, that very sense of level playing served the other two works on the program to great effect. Following the Milhaud was Song of the Silkie for baritone and string quartet, an RCMF-commissioned work from 2000 by Elena Ruehr (text by Laura Harrington). According to the composer — who gave a brief, comfortably engaging talk (and a little song, too) about the work beforehand, the commission had been to write a piece about the sea. Harrington’s text, a story based on Irish folktales of a seaman who fell in love with a seal that took the form of a human woman (a “silkie”), provided the narrative for a work of effective nautical sonorities. Darkly shimmering, watery textures alternate with jig- and reel-like rhythms turned inside out to create a half-moonlit-shanty effect that the Quartet vividly brought to life. These textures support the daring vocal part that serves as the expressive core of the piece. The singer is scored in his natural range for the part of the seaman and in falsetto for the part of the silkie, an impressive theatrical device. Within those registers, the vocal lines are broad and expansive. Baritone Stephen Salters took hold of those lines and delivered them with an achingly evocative mournfulness, beautifully balancing the emotional distance in the music with the intense immediacy of the text.

The final work on the program was a string quartet by Arnold Schoenberg, written in 1897 when he was a student. If Brahms and Beethoven had had an affair in the Schwarzwald, this piece would have been their love-child. Although most would never suspect it was by the man who would later invent the jagged language of Twelve-Tone composition, it nonetheless reveals hallmarks of this composer’s entire output: the Beethovenian tendency to expand and build on basic melodic gestures, the Brahmsian rhythmic Gemüt, and an unwavering mastery of overall craft. What is perhaps less characteristic is the lightheartedness, the downright fun of the piece. And it was precisely this element that radiated throughout the Biava Quartet’s performance of all four movements. Their natural sense of rich, Romantic ensemble playing, combined with their skill and youthful vigor, resulted in a rousing rendition of this little-known piece that ended up being the perfect closer for a concert and a career.

As the Biava Quartet’s life comes to an end, the life of the space in which they performed is just beginning. The Shalin Liu Performance Center opened on June 10 and has already featured 10 concerts. The look of the space is magnificent: beachy-chic, with subtly elegant stone- and woodwork, a massive behind-the-stage window with a glorious view of Sandy Bay, and an overall design that lets all 300-plus listeners feel intimately connected to the performers on the stage. Most important, however, are the stunning acoustics, a near-perfect balance of resonance and clarity. One can look forward to watching this space quickly take its place among the world’s finest performing venues.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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