in: Reviews

November 10, 2014

Carter Made Immense Demands on Lyds

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Featuring a rather diverse program, the Lydian String Quartet’s first concert since naming new violist, Mark Berger, was witnessed by a nearly sold-out Slosberg Hall. Though playing to a home crowd, Brandeis University’s resident string quartet was exceptionally well received, earning a standing ovation at the intermission and at the end of Saturday night.

About an hour beforehand, first violinist Daniel Stepner introduced Berger, who gave a pre-concert lecture. Berger graduated with his Ph.D in Composition from Brandeis in ’11 and explained his special connection with the works of the program. The concept and content had been buzzing around his head for quite some time, he explained, starting about a decade ago as a fellow at Tanglewood. That summer he played Carter’s first string quartet, while in the evenings, composing his Master’s Thesis—also a string quartet. Knowing that he would soon head to Brandeis for his doctoral program, he anticipated that the Lydians would play it—which linked this ensemble to him and the Carter piece that influenced him so. Now, its come full circle, as Berger is finally playing the Carter again, but this time as the newest member of the Lydians. Given the Carter’s intense rhythmic challenges, Berger felt that the need to ‘think with one rhythmic mind’ would be a synergizing experience as the group works to become fully integrated.

In addition to this personal connection with Carter, the aesthetically disparate pieces connected via the common thread of dreams. Glass String quartet No. 5 and Haydn’s Op 50 No. 5 “The Dream” also graced the program. Though concert’s subtitle “Its About Time” ostensibly refers to their return from performance hiatus, it connected to the content of the program as well: time occurs differently in each of these dream-related pieces. Glass’ additive processes contrast Haydn’s Classical notions of time – and Carter’s disjunct depiction of time, featuring multiple tempi at once, takes it to a further extreme.

Taking the stage, the men brandished differing colored ties, violinist Judith Eissenberg wearing a splendid chemise of bright colors—and each with a different color and length of hair, among them, brown, balding, shoulder-length, silver, and white. Physically, their movements matched this disunity in colors; each player moved with their own vocabulary of movements, moving together only to triumphantly raise bows at the ends of some Haydn movements, as a synchronized final gesture. Though not a detriment to their quality, musically and otherwise, this quartet feels like it’s made up of four distinct players.

Despite these differences, their sound blended extremely well, delving first into the Haydn. In the slow second movement, Stepner really sang through his instrument, caressing a long single note, shaping it with many slight colors as the other voices moved around him. Dedicated to the King of Prussia, an amateur cellist, this work featured a more intricate and prominent cello part. Joshua Gordon had no problem taking these more prominent moments. However, I was more in awe of his ensemble playing, alternating between prominent pedal tone in one measure, to blending seamlessly with the higher voices in the next: the sort of work of a master performer. Overall, their convincing interpretation really made you wonder why this particular Haydn is so rarely performed.

Although the ensemble’s tone never veered from sweet, the transition to the Glass was a little disorienting—especially in the harmonic differences. Attempting to “write a quartet that is about musicality, which in a certain way is the most serious subject,” this 1991 work brings out more dramatic intrigue than some of Glass’ earlier, more purely minimalist works. Their performance of this piece felt dreamlike, with the repetition, and then repetition with additive parts. Hearing so many harmonies from pop-clichés played with such pure tones felt surreal, especially when juxtaposed so closely with the functional harmonies of the Haydn. Performance of this mesmerizing, undulating piece whisked you off to some foreign place.

The ensemble guided through the piece’s architecture. The intimate hall served them well throughout the concert, especially at the end of the Glass; the switch to a tutti pizzicato, for the first time in the piece, was devastating. These quiet utterings could be heard with remarkable clarity as the piece whispered to a close.

My only criticism through this first half is that mannerisms and facial expressions didn’t match the effortlessness of the music—a bit tense for the often playful and graceful affects of the music. At times it felt like the players were already in the mental space for the immense demands of the Carter.

Lydian String Quartet (file photo)

Lydian String Quartet (Mike Lovett photo)

If nothing else, the four displayed their intellectual capabilities during the long journey of the second act. As much as one can process these bafflingly complicated textures, the Lydians faired admirably in rendering such a dense and complex work of High Modernist aesthetic. A conceptual homage to Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto, which sonically represented Orpheus’ encounter with the Furies, the Viola and Cello were pitted against the two violins for much of this work. Though rather organically structured, with swells and gradual shifts in the music. Despite two pauses in the almost 45-minute work, the always music fought forward—pushing towards an arrival point, and getting there—but carrying on with it shifting, in a searching volatile way.

The players’ kinesthetic differences contributed to my appreciation of this piece, each moving in their own time as the piece built up with each player in a different meter and tempo. During the more energetic and rhythmically confused parts, each player’s distinct movements grew into a sort of grotesque dance.

Though I could see some heads lolling and growing restless through this exhaustive work, the conviction and emotions presented a compelling narrative. The quartet so vibrantly brings together the tradition with their own precise opinions. Though in their 34th-year at Brandeis, the Lydians still have much to contribute to the musical well-being of the university and the musical community at large.

Nate Shaffer is a pianist, composer and improviser, currently studying at Brandeis University. He’s an avid barbershop singer, a member of local men’s chorus Vocal Revolution, and can be seen performing regularly as a pianist at ImprovBoston.

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