in: Reviews

April 9, 2011

Brahms and two Harvard composers from Chiara

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The young Chiara Quartet are Blodgett Artists-in-Residence at Harvard University. On Friday, April 8 they gave their final concert of the season at the campus’s John Knowles Paine Concert Hall. Two Harvard-connected composers were represented: Adam Roberts, educated there, and James Yannatos, Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra’s conductor for some four decades. Their music came alive before a very good-sized, approving gathering on hand for the free concert. Besides Chiara’s commissioning and performing a good deal of new music over the course of four years it has had an “intense engagement with Brahms’ musical world.”

The fit of the ninety-minute start-of-the-weekend evening program was a good one, leaving listeners verging on the side of refreshment. Both the Roberts and Yannatos went well together. The highly energized and taut textural blocks of Tangled Symmetries countered the mercurial shifts of playfulness and lyricism of String Quartet No. 3. After intermission, just the opus 51, no. 1 quartet of Brahms remained on which to focus.

Yet during the shorter program, certain features of string quartet’s style of playing often lent themselves to saturation points. This was especially noticeable in Brahms. The picture of youth was befitting to Roberts’s single-movement work. “I had the feeling that while writing the piece that the energetic, tangled lines were constantly trying to ‘right’ themselves …” Its clear formal sections jumped out, attacking variously. Chiara’s unleashed, unabashed muscle proved right for Roberts’s confronting globules that sometimes felt like actual body blows. Realism at its best.

For Brahms, it was one kind of story; he spoke to a pupil about the arduous path to publication of his first quartet: “before he published his op. 51.” He had already written and discarded “over twenty string quartets.” For Yannatos, it was another kind of story: some twelve years intervened between the time he composed this third quartet in the summer of 1999 and its “world premiere.” “Tonight is the first performance,” he writes, putting it a lighter tone.

Yannatos’s own indications at the opening of his quartet, read “light and loose.” As far as I could follow, Chiara adhered to the score, which I had in hand, as meticulously as it could, notes being mostly in order. A lovely, fleeting D-type harmony at the close of movement one did not come together. The nifty flash of A-type harmony emerged, but I never heard the cello’s concluding oomph that was supposed to put the final exclamation point on the piece.

Lightness and looseness this performance did not have. For some reason, the quartet seemed to abjure softness or lyricism; their overplaying all the more blurred Yannatos’s quick-silver mindset that engines this music. Admiration, though, is there for Chiara, whose dedication afforded enough glimpses into the quartet to allow the composer’s wondrous fascinations to be heard.

String Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 51 as played by Chiara may have surpassed Brahms himself. I did not understand the postulations. Overload loomed. Despite the fine programming, little relief, little letup, was in play. Besides opting for greater decibel and energy levels, their concept of tuning also puzzled. It might be that our culture today, resplendent with the heavy and intense, has found its way into the old German’s music of another century.

This having been my first experience with this young string quartet, a group which has already received impressive accolades and prizes, I’d like to see what they do in the coming years. They will be in residence through 2012. The Chiara Quartet’s members are Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon, violins, Jonah Sirota, viola, and Gregory Beaver, cello.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

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