The quartet plus two that made up the chamber mix during Saturday night’s performance at the Rockport Music Festival gave us a great combination and progression of music for piano, clarinet, and strings. We heard, in order: Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio in E-flat major, K.498 for clarinet, viola, and piano; Aaron Jay Kernis’ Perpetual Chaconne (2012) for clarinet and strings, and Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Pianist and artistic director David Deveau was joined by clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and the Calder String Quartet: Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violins, Jonathan Moerschel, viola, and Eric Byers, cello.
It was a beautiful day, clear skies. A mostly serene coastal New England landscape backdrop, with the occasional reminder that this backdrop was live: a boat or two in the distance, the occasional seagull swooping by to salute the performers—not at all an interruption—and the gradual darkening of sky. We were happy to be inside, since we were also pretty much out. The music commenced as someone’s ticket dropped down from the balcony, spinning silently to keep itself aloft as long as possible, then changing trajectory to drop almost at the feet of the composer, Aaron Jay Kernis.
Deveau, Yeh, and Moerschel launched the Mozart with little ceremony and beautiful waves of sound. In this charming and light-textured piece with unusual scoring, the players were in perfect sync in their phrasing, playing full measures, not beats, floating across the score. It was tender and warm, graceful and elegant, with superb clarity of sound, both from their playing and from the acoustics of this dry hall over the water. The 2nd movement brought a little more inherent drama, but with the same ebb and flow that would characterize the piece, with small swells (never overstated) of sound. Such beautiful clarinet sound, such control! Likewise with the piano and viola, though the viola did not project quite as much (it being a viola), and occasionally certain tones in the lower register of the piano would boom a bit as if connected to a sub-woofer. Only rarely, and this was an acoustical phenomenon, not the result of playing. Deveau’s balance at the keyboard, playing from the core, is a really something to witness, especially for fellow pianists who might absorb and benefit (albeit briefly, sadly) from his skills and musicianship (like playing better tennis right after watching Federer, but it doesn’t last.)
I was sorry to have missed the Aaron Jay Kernis’ pre-performance talk, but we did get some of his notes in the program: “Perpetual Chaconne grows out of four main ideas: the falling lines in the violins that open it, the lyrical, expressive music that is introduced by the clarinet; a group of minor chords that is the harmonic grounding (the chaconne) of the whole work, and the rocking, alternating triplets that pass from instrument to instrument. Everything else in the piece varies one or more of these ideas, and maps an emotional journey from mournful lyricism to increasingly abstract, harsh gestures and back. Some of the ideas return to echo earlier appearances in the work, but most are varied and transformed all the way through to the end.”
He’s tapped something primal in his work. But nothing like, say, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Not so violent. Here, a different range from the emotional spectrum. I confess to being taken back several decades to a TV episode I watched as a teen: Star Trek, Season 3, “The Empath.” Suffice it to say the show is about courage and healing, though the accompanying music is nothing like Kernis’s. Or more to the point, the Kernis score is nothing like the Star Trek score. Still, there are over arching non-musical impressions, at least for me, of ‘struggling, healing, feeling, discovering, changing, and (mostly) continually searching.’ It ends quietly, with more question than answer.
There’s much going on, and loads of dissonance and some harsh gestures as promised, but integrated, or crafted in a way to be ultra player-listener-friendly. It is immediately accessible because of, not in spite of, this craft and detailed workmanship. Kernis has taken us on a small journey that covers considerable terrain, in tribute to several before him (including Beethoven). He has made a variation of the variation form, the chaconne, and turned it in to a truly dynamic composition.
Of course, immense credit to the players. This was less about a string quartet plus a clarinet player, more about five players working together. (Note the title references strings but does not compartmentalize players in a quartet.) Often times the clarinet sound would emerge from the texture without our having heard from where it came or when it began. Likewise, with each string player. Though, in the beginning, the clarinet and strings do introduce distinctly different material that is then developed and shared throughout the piece by all players. They worked seamlessly together, these five players, up to the final quiet, questioning notes. As the piece progressed, I was made more aware, because of the combination of instruments, of the sound of wood (as opposed to any wooden sound) of the string instruments because of the presence of the clarinet, and in particular the fluid and colorful playing of this clarinetist. The piece certainly had emotional resonance with the audience, who offered the players and composer the warmest of receptions.
In hindsight, The Beethoven Op. 131 seemed a perfect choice to follow intermission, with more searching and questioning. This was supposedly Beethoven’s favorite quartet, and his penultimate, despite the opus numbers (Op. 133 was written just a bit before). That a deaf Beethoven wrote such music that begs for live performance is itself interesting. This performance was very much alive. From the opening swell of the first violin, through the stoically beautiful and haunting fugue, and through all the wackiness and mayhem that ensues, we were a captive audience.
Seven movements without pause, so demanding of the players. And the 40 minutes passed quickly. During the quartet some wonderful things about the acoustics emerged. As the players exchanged and developed themes, progressing within the work from solos, to duos, to trios, or solos with trio accompaniment, etc., the location of each player on stage seemed so evident. The stereophonic quality was underlined in wonderfully. The tradeoff: certain low register notes in the cello were also amplified, occasionally perhaps a bit too much. That sub-woofer effect again. Not a big deal, except that the upper registers of the violins then seemed a bit thinned out at times.
The super-brief 2nd-movement-of-a-surprise-in-D-Major, after all that somber, melancholy in C-sharp minor, had just the right amount of lilt and raucousness. The 4th movement variations encompassed their own little world within the quartet, with wit, charm, and no shortness of bounce and grit from the players when warranted. Duo dialogues between instruments were often poignant. There were jokes, pluck sounds, even “cluck” sounds, and much humor, with Beethoven now back down to earth, at least temporarily.
The ensemble playing was superb, each voice clear but also melding in the sense-surround of the auditorium. We got more birds, this time in the music with trills, not outside. And there was plenty of sawing in the 5th movement, most excellent sawing at that. Here, there were fragmentary signs of some fatigue in the first violinist, when an Alberti-like figuration in upper registers was not executed in perfect rhythm with his colleagues. But perhaps there should be sign of at least some struggle in any late Beethoven.
There was great tension to the work, much agitato, so many sounds and sound effects generated by the small ensemble. And in the final movement, not a lot of pause or breath, just drive. Dense, dark playing, with the jarring, near relentless dotted rhythms building in intensity up the final bizarre bars, where suddenly, briefly, we’re in the major mode and finished. Like that, the audience was on its feet, tension released.
On the way out, I heard someone say, “That Beethoven. He was really a good composer!” It didn’t sound at all trite, or understated. It was the freshness of the performance, the bringing of this late work to life, making us aware of what is possible, allowing us to appreciate. And, if you’ll forgive one more Star Trek reference, while it may go without saying that Beethoven’s music (and Mozart’s) will continue to live long and prosper, I suspect the music of Kernis will, too.