in: Reviews

August 8, 2011

Crossing Over in Wellfleet

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Quartet San Francisco, winners of the International Tango Competition in 2004, has a serious mission – to bring exciting music from a great variety of genres to the string quartet repertoire. Not only did they perform a wonderful concert on in Wellfleet on August 5, they conducted a Tango workshop in Sandwich and welcomed people to their rehearsals. They offer their arrangements on the web, and from the very enthusiastic reception their concert received on Friday, the arrangements are well worth downloading. Led by Jeremy Cohen, the group has several Grammy-nominated CDs.

Friday’s concert gave us tunes from two of the four great B’s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Brubeck – as well as music from Peter Shickele, Jeremy Cohen, Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla, and Paul McCartney. The first piece, perhaps the weakest in the program, was by Shickele. It received polite applause. The next piece was a tango by Cohen, intended to demonstrate two string sounds peculiar to Argentine tango – Chicharra and Látigo, the cricket and the whip. The cricket sound is made by scraping the bow on the strings below the bridge, the whip by sliding a finger rapidly up and down the fingerboard. In Cohen’s tango these sounds popped up unexpectedly at seemingly odd places in the music, surprising the audience and eliciting laughter or chuckles. When the cricket and whiplash sounds reappeared in the tango by Piazzolla, they were far better integrated and much more effective.

A set of Brubeck arrangements followed. Kathy’s Waltz, written for Brubeck’s daughter, was playful and affectionate; Bluette was dark and brooding; and Unsquare Dance was very upbeat, but in 7/8 meter. I would love to see someone dance to it.

Cohen’s arrangement of Eleanor Rigby was a lot of fun, integrating a Bach Toccata and a tango along with the famous tune. The seamless skill with which this integration was done comes from the performance style of American fiddle music – which is an essential part of QSF. I most recently heard this type of playing in Wellfleet last spring, courtesy of William Fedkenhauer, the first violin of the Fry Street Quartet and a champion fiddler. He was goaded by his children, he said, into playing Orange Blossom Special, the signature virtuoso fiddlers’ anthem. Before he started, he explained that once the fingers get going he really does not know where they will stop – and sure enough, several tunes blended seamlessly into his rendition.

Jeremy Cohen and — especially — Alisa Rose are expert fiddlers. Cohen is more in the tradition of Fedkenhauer, where speed and fancy ornamentation seem to rule. Rose on the other hand is master of portimento, slides, and bending both pitch and rhythm. The skills of both players were in ample evidence in Eleanor Rigby. Keith Lawrence, viola, and Lucas Chen, cello, did not fiddle – but they can and did play some mean jazz riffs throughout the concert.

Perhaps the highlight of the concert for me was Nuevo Tango by Piazzolla. Already famous in Argentina as a conductor, composer of Tango, and a virtuoso player of the bandoneón, an accordion-like instrument with great emotional power, Piazzolla decided to concentrate on classical music styles and traveled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. Having heard him play one of his tangos Boulanger convinced him that his heart was in tango, and he should never abandon tango or bandoneón. Nuevo Tango” was written shortly thereafter. It is clearly tango – but the harmonies and some of the melodic structure are spiky and dissonant, similar to Hindemith or Schoenberg. The arrangement by QSF bought out all these elements. The occasional appearance of Chicharra and Látigo fit perfectly into the musical structure – very effective and not funny at all.

Brubeck’s Golden Horn – a jazz arrangement where all the individuals in the group had a chance to solo – clearly brought out the differences between the players. Cohen’s style was Gypsy, fast ornaments and runs. Rose’s was amazing American fiddle playing, swoops, bends, and inégales. Lawrence showed us all how a viola can play jazz – as did Chen on cello. The encore was Tchavahalo Swing – and it was met by an instant standing ovation.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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