Voxare, in case you were wondering as I was, doesn’t really mean anything. “Voxare is our own creation,” says its bio, “an imagined Latin infinitive of the root word vox, which can be translated as: voice, cry, call; accent, language; sound, tone; a saying, utterance.” The name describes the ensemble well, as it demonstrated at its debut appearance in Woodstock at the Maverick Concerts series on July 14th.
Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony,” Op. 4, is a rather strange piece, by a composer at 20 looking back on his juvenilia and transforming four very early piano pieces into a composition for string orchestra. The titles of the movements indicate the composer’s humorous intent, starting with the “Boisterous Bourrée.” (Britten’s next work, his Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 5, is one of the funniest pieces of music I know, as memorably demonstrated at Maverick years ago by the late Charles Libove and his wife Nina Lugovoy.) Apparently Britten intended from the beginning that the piece be playable both by string orchestra and by string quartet, and indications for the quartet version are written into the score. I was immediately impressed with the sheer size of Voxare’s sound, huge and luxurious in quality. The simple demands of Britten’s score were met convincingly in a fine performance.
For a long time I have considered myself allergic to the music of Ned Rorem. Our first musical meeting was unfortunate: a series of inappropriate settings of poems by Theodore Roethke, including a version of the frightening poem “My Papa’s Waltz” which turned it into something humorous and bland. Subsequent experience with Rorem’s work has failed to convert me. But his String Quartet No. 4, composed in 1991, is better than what I’m used to. It’s formally unusual, a series of ten short movements ranging from one minute to five and totaling more than half an hour. Each movement is based on a work of art, making it Rorem’s Pictures at an Exhibition. While the composer eventually suppressed the movement titles and information on the pictures, Voxare has revealed them. The painter is Picasso, and Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt read the titles of each movement (mostly familiar paintings) before it was played.
The style of the movements varies so greatly they could almost have been written by different composers. The major influence seems to be Bartók, but what Rorem has taken from him is an approach to sound and harmony, not something specific. I was taken aback by the first movement, which certainly lived up to its indication, “Ugly and Relentless,” but in a fascinating way. Previously Rorem has sometimes struck me as sentimental, but there was none of that quality in this music. I had a very good time with it, and as far as I could tell in this unfamiliar music the performance was entirely sympathetic and expressive. Voxare isn’t one of those string quartets which dazzles you with the kind of razor-sharp precision that calls attention to itself, but the playing was precise enough. And what a big sound!
It’s easy for me to understand why Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3, in E-flat Minor, Op. 30, is considerably less popular than his first quartet. The first is extremely concise for Tchaikovsky, and in its “Andante cantabile” it has one of his best-known melodies. The third quartet is much more complex and demanding than the First. It’s also more discursive, and runs about as long as the fourth symphony. Until the lively folk dance finale, this piece is a tougher slog than the first, and I can understand why neither audiences nor performers have made it a great favorite. It’s still good, though. With its rich, idiomatic, and (again!) big sound, Voxare gave Tchaikovsky his best shot at capturing an audience, and the audience’s enthusiasm demonstrated the foursome’s success.
After all this hard work I wasn’t expecting an encore. But the Voxare bio had mentioned the range of its interests and repertoire, which extends into pop music. The encore was an arrangement, presumably by the quartet, of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Most classical arrangements of pop songs are a waste of time, usually because they are too timid. There was nothing reserved about this arrangement or performance, though. It was a kick to see Maverick’s white-headed audience standing and cheering for the Stones. If Voxare ever issues a CD of arrangements like this, I’ll be standing on line to buy one.