in: Reviews

November 24, 2013

Contrasts From Chiara

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In its wind-down season as Blodgett Quartet in Residence at Harvard, the Chiara Quartet presented a program at Paine Hall on Friday that contrasted Classical and Romantic masterworks with some of the more exploratory offerings of Harvard graduate students, each of which garnered a prize in the Blodgett Composition competition run by Harvard’s music department.

The program began with one of the latter, Proof Resistance by Italian composer Marta Gentilucci. With cellist Gregory Beaver on stage, violinists Rachel Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon in the aisles and violist Joshua Sirota at the rear of the hall (all miked), the piece opened with a scratchy cello “motif” that is answered by silences, visible but not audible bow motion, and a gradual emergence of pitched material. The players’ breathing is also part of the piece. The music increases in intensity in a variety of string sonorities and textures, including one passage that was a remarkable imitation of an accordion. There is a retreat back to silence before the sounds recommence. As far as we could make out, there are no repetitions of materials, no special climax as such, and then the piece stops.

All this is by way of reportage. As far as evaluation goes, one wouldn’t want to prejudice the perceptions of those who weren’t there, but it does seem fair to ascertain the composer’s intentions and see if the results realized them. Gentilucci’s program note states that “…this image [of proof resilience, “the maximum amount of energy a material can absorb and store without permanent deformation”] is the confluence of several compositional necessities: the experience of the elasticity of the sound space, its potential for stretching, its change of density, and its contours. The sound space is not intended as a container of musical events, but is in itself the musical event…” It’s gibberish like that that gave modern music a bad name in the 1960s, and continues to repel all but the most innocent today. That apart, one would expect the music to reflect the idea of increasing intensity until the “material” reached a saturation level and provided a cathartic spring back; this we must have missed—we found no compositional or emotional compulsion behind the piece, nothing to invite a second hearing.

Next on the program was a composition whose coherence and charm are the antithesis of the first work, namely Mozart’s Quartet No. 8 in F major, K. 168, one of Mozart’s first pieces to reflect his encounter with mature Haydn, in particular the latter’s op. 20 quartets, and especially in Mozart’s contrapuntal finale. The Chiara gave it a mellow and balanced reading, although we found the first movement a little bit forced in volume. There were numerous wonderful details, from the “surprise” violin runs in the first movement, the glowing sonorities of the slow second, the rhythmic vitality of the minuet and the vivacity of the fugal finale.

The first half closed, rather daringly, with the second Blodgett winner, Mexican composer Edgar Barroso’s Engrama (not a new work, being from 2010). Barroso’s note, in radical contrast to Gentilucci’s, focused on secular concerns relating to kidnapping, crime and terror as experienced in his country in recent years, and how its victims’ memories process them. It opens with a sharp shriek and progresses through different intensities, speeds and sonorities reflecting the different modes of coping. More conventionally written for the instruments than the Gentilucci piece, it also seems to have more of an underlying structure, with a defined climax before retreating to a group sigh and percussion on the instruments’ bodies.

The program’s second half was (on paper) devoted exclusively to Brahms’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 115, with clarinetist Todd Palmer joining the quartet. We need not say much about this quintet, which deserves its reputation as one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written, and a distillation of Brahms’s technical and emotional discourse. Moreover, this was one of the best performances of it we’ve heard: Palmer’s tone was ultra-smooth and perfectly controlled (except for a couple of spots in the third movement). The outer sections of the second movement might have overdone the sostenuto just a bit, but the Hungarian licks in its central section were brilliant. The finale was poised, ardent and conveyed the autumnal sorrow of Brahms’s outlook (one is tempted to say “late” outlook, but really, Brahms was like that from youth). The mood was perfectly sustained throughout the piece.

As an encore (rather surprising to see an encore in a group recital like this), the quintet performed an arrangement of Brahms’s op. 118 No. 5 Romance in F Major which, while not exactly a lively work, was reposefully affirmative.

This concert was the last one by Chiara for this semester; they will round out their residency in March and April with a survey of all the Bartók quartets.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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