in: Reviews

November 18, 2011

Katz Calms Chiara

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Sanders Theatre reverberated with the sounds of music old and new in the Wednesday concert, November 16,  of the Chiara Quartet. Immediately noticeable as soon as it opened with the String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387 of Mozart was the unity of ensemble and the enthusiasm with which the group played. The piece, written in 1782 as part of the “Haydn Quartets,” is highly chromatic, with a multitude of beautiful themes and an unusually long second movement, marked Menuetto: Allegro. The third movement, Andante cantabile, was gorgeous, full of melody. The opening themes from the first movement return in the fourth, shortened and turned into fugues. The quartet brought out all of this with passion, and then some. If anything, I found the performance just a bit over the top.

The second piece on the program was “behind the light – for string quartet and electronics” by Hans Tutschku, Fanny P. Mason Professor of Music anddirector of the Studio for Electroacoustic Composition at Harvard University. Among many other accomplishments,  Tutschku is the designer of a thirty-two-loudspeaker system called “Hydra” that can be heard this week in concert at the Sound in Space Festival, courtesy of Goethe-Institut. The piece combined the live performance of the Chiara with sounds assembled and modified from material they played in the electroacoustic studio. The finished recording was played from two loudspeakers placed inside the arc of the quartet. The first violinist, Rebecca Fischer, started the player, counted perhaps six beats, and brought the whole quartet in together exactly as the electronic sounds started, not an easy thing to do. The instruments and the electronics came in with a bang, a huge, violent, pizzicato followed by quieter sound.

The title of the piece refers to reflections – light or sounds filtered or modified from their original forms. Sometimes the electronics reflected the instruments, sometimes both electronics and instruments reflected previous sounds. I liked the fact that the loudspeaker sounds were derived from the same instruments that were playing live. The piece was atonal – the excitement was provided by sudden shifts in dynamics. There were loud crashes of tone clusters, followed by pianissimo reflections. In general the speakers played along with the musicians, and it was often difficult to tell whether the sounds we were hearing came from the players or the speakers, particularly as the loudspeakers shared the same location. When they played alone, the speakers had a distinctly different timbre from the live instruments – more distant and boxy. From where I sat I could not tell if the two loudspeakers were playing the same sounds or different sounds – the clarity of the sounds is often better if they are not played simultaneously through two speakers.

As luck would have it, I had just returned from Detmold, Germany, where the German Tonmeister Society together with the Detmold Hochschule für Musik presented a conference on spatial audio recording and reproduction. There were demonstrations of many different systems, using as many as a hundred loudspeakers, along with a concert of electronic sounds with acoustic instruments. By far the most interesting of the concert pieces was a 1966 composition by Jacob Druckman for solo trombone (played by Benny Sluchin) and electronics. The tonmeisters had re-worked the tape so the Moog sounds were distributed around the audience, using a many-channeled sound system. The result was fascinating – the sharp presence of the soloist contrasted strongly to the diffuse sound of the electronics coming from any direction.

The performance by the Chiara in Sanders lacked the spatial dimension in Detmold but was much simpler, far easier to set up, play to, and to practice with. The practice definitely showed – the quartet was consistently exactly in synch with the recording. The spatial separation of the instruments and the electronic sounds I heard in Detmold was – probably purposely – missing, but the simplicity of the setup makes the piece far more accessible to performers.

The third and last piece on the program was Schubert’s Quintet in C Major – a masterpiece of chamber music composition. I have been fortunate to hear it (or parts of it) played three times this year. Last spring, cellist Paul Katz played the second movement with the Frye Street Quartet in a concert in Wellfleet honoring Bernie Greenhouse, and the Borromeo String Quartet played it in the same venue this summer with Laurence Lesser. I attempted to review this concert (here,) and made some interesting, although incorrect, observations about the sound of the instruments in the performance that led to a fascinating series of comments by Tom Delbanco and Nicholas Kitchen.

This time we were treated again to the playing of Paul Katz – and it was a delight. Katz had a calm assuredness that contrasted to and brought under control the sometimes over-enthusiastic playing of the Chiara. I am always interested in how vibrato is used in performance. Katz used vibrato, of course, but it was restrained, less than the way the Chiara in general played. The contrast was interesting, but not bothersome. The wonderful Adagio movement of the quartet was awesome, and the whole performance was fabulous.  The large audience was delighted, and the performers deserved and got a long standing ovation.

But how did it sound? Sanders is much larger than the Congregational Church in Wellfleet, has considerably better clarity, and a more beautiful reverberation. You need not sit in the first five rows to hear every note. The cost of the larger size is less loudness – there is only so much sound to go around, and the more people there are in the audience, the less sound there is for each. But one of the threads about the previous two performances was the richness of the bass notes, particularly in the second movement. Alas, Sanders’s beautiful tongue-and-groove wood construction soaks up bass. The reverberation time is 1.5 seconds or more at 1000Hz when the floor and parquet is fully occupied, as it was Wednesday night. But the reverberation time below 100Hz is much less – perhaps just 1.1 seconds. So you heard the pluck of the lower strings of the cello, but not the same full rich sound you got from the upper strings. Still, I love the sound in Sanders. Jordan Hall has the bass Sanders lacks – but Sanders has better clarity, particularly in more distant seats. And the lack of a deep stage house keeps the performers up front where they belong. Bravo to Harvard for bringing us such a wonderful space, and performers to fill it.

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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