Not every premiere introduces exciting new music to the world, nor does every premiere receive a committed and musically sensitive performance that situates it in the company of other works complementary in character and spirit. That’s exactly what a packed Paine Hall at Harvard received Friday night, however, as the Blodgett Chamber Music Series at Harvard presented the fabulous young Parker Quartet performing works by Erwin Schulhoff and Felix Mendelssohn that surrounded a thrilling world premiere by Augusta Read Thomas.
Thomas’s Helix Spirals for string quartet, commissioned by scientist Jeanne Guillemin, celebrates the pioneering work of Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl, researchers responsible for discovering the nature of DNA replication, in 1958. They confirmed that DNA replicates “semi-conservatively,” or by splitting into two strands without breaking, convincing scientists beyond a close group of enthusiastic supporters that the double helix was more than fanciful speculation and quickly making the “Meselson-Stahl experiment” a classic model in the field of molecular biology.
Thomas spoke about the work before the performance while the quartet offered short excerpts of its diverse textures, explaining that the three movements entitled “Loci: memory palace”, “Interlacing: twists and threads”, and “Spirals: life force,” abstractly highlight three perspectives on the processes, which can also be seen as a series reflecting the evolution of life. “Loci” refers to gene locations, DNA sequences, or positions on a chromosome, and this movement fittingly featured “colorful sounds in a kaleidoscopic range of combinations.” The movement begins with a sharp single note that spreads in pitch to neighbors of the diatonic scale and diversifies in timbre featuring an array of pointillistic sparks, from snapped pizzicati to scampering col legno. As Helix Spirals begins it’s as though we witness the first molecular bonds among bits of carbon in the primordial soup, and as the first movement unfolds these parts become more and more complex, building into short multi-note motives that recombine and in turn build still other motives.
The strands constructed from the bits and pieces reveal themselves whole in the second movement, and the musical language for these themes is, fittingly, more complex and chromatic. “Interlacing: twists and threads” “draws a picture of DNA semi-conservative replication,” with pairs of instruments playing complementary lines that split and join the others. Episodes in this process of replication are divided by moments of suspension, where the quartet plays a held note, creating a “moment of calm that serves as an aural guidepost”, leading the audience through this programmatic form. However, color remains a key component of the texture even in this more thematic second movement, and the quartet members who are not engaged with unraveling one of the strands at any given time add swelling bowed notes and other effects to the lines, catching particular genes and chromosomes to spotlight.
Only in the final movement, “Spirals: life force”, does the music telescope out from the molecular level, or from an evolutionary perspective move millions of years into the future, to reflect the beauty and diversity of life that DNA sustains. With “Spirals”, the emotional, almost metaphysical or spiritual connotations of this incredible, delicate process bloom in a way that nevertheless reflects back on and connects intimately with the microscopic components that make it possible. Individual pitches emerge from each musician to collect in groups and play with our tonal ears, suggesting, from one fleeting moment to the next, rich chords and sonorities in an ever shifting harmonic landscape. Thomas declared this movement “optimistic and life-affirming”, and those qualities saturate the atmosphere. Major chords mingle with their relative minor, amassing rich combinations of semi-dissonant washes, with individual pitches introduced by each quartet member, moment by moment connected by common tones and differentiated by the process of replacing those tones one by one. Evolution is omnipresent, but the overall sense is peaceful and meditative despite the quick, surging crescendos that mark off episodes from one another. In the midst of this beautiful, detailed final movement, we realize that its pan-diatonic character recalls the same type of pitch collection that defined the vastly different, far more disjointed “Loci” at the beginning.
The Parker Quartet gave a committed, detailed, and virtuosic reading, and announced that they would enter the studio the following day to record this vital new piece for Nimbus Records. Thomas’s Helix Spirals combines explosive energy, technical virtuosity, and vivid colors and textures with an intellectual rigor of conception that lends it formal continuity and cohesion. This exciting work deserves a place in the repertoire, and hopefully the Parker Quartet will perform it widely and persuade other ensembles to follow their lead.
Erwin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet opened the program, giving the Parker Quartet the chance to show off their technical virtuosity, flawless ensemble, and propulsive rhythmic energy. Whatever expressive depth this young quartet has not yet mined (and it’s not much, considering the intensity of their Grammy-winning Ligeti recordings for Naxos), they make up for in sheer exuberance and bounce. Even though Schulhoff’s life ended in tragedy (having committed to communism in the 1930s, this Jewish composer was doubly vulnerable as the Nazis spread through Europe, and in June 1941 he was arrested, sent to a concentration camp, and died of tuberculosis in 1942, age 48), in the ’20s he was immersing himself in the dance halls and jazz clubs of Germany and Prague. His “Five Pieces” offers refractions of five dance styles, hovering somewhere near “Les Six” (Schulhoff dedicated a piece to Darius Milhaud), and the vigorous romps betray a composer living large: a perfect curtain-raiser.
The concert ended with another energetic and life-affirming work, this one established: Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 no. 3. From the rustic, good-natured opening to the rousing finale, it leapt from the stage. Violinist Daniel Chong dug into the first violin part with verve and commitment, second violinist Ying Xue matching him and at every turn and cellist Kee-Hyun Kim providing rhythmic bounce from below. Violist Jessica Bodner completed the sound, playing with both pathos and charm.