The 2015 Maverick Concerts season closed on Sunday with a concert by the American String Quartet and a world premiere of a piece that just might remain in the string quartet repertory.
In its 39th season, the ASQ is still looking for new material to explore. You can’t get any newer than a piece written for you. By a happy coincidence, one of the Quartet’s favorite living composers is also a local resident who has been involved with Maverick for years, George Tsontakis. And as part of Maverick’s 100th season, the organization arranged for a commission to Tsontakis for a new work (one of four, three of which have now been performed).
Tsontakis called his work “String Quartet 7.5 (Maverick)” because it’s in two movements and, at 12 minutes, about half the length of most of his quartets. But there’s nothing slight about this work. It begins with a movement entitled “Distantly Romantic,” but I didn’t find the romanticism distant at all. The idiom, if you can imagine such a thing, seems to have elements of late Beethoven and of Bartók (particularly the latter’s “night music” style). Despite the somewhat “advanced” idiom, it’s lyrical and passionate, written in a complex tonality which sometimes seems to abandon a tonal center but I think never really does. The second movement is “Flowing, but Inwardly Rhythmic,” again a little deceptive. It begins with a slow section featuring harmonics, then develops into a strongly rhythmic central section which is powerful and quite dancy, and then returns to the mood of its opening.
I found the piece had considerable emotional impact, and apparently so did the audience, which greeted the performance with prolonged cheers. The ASQ announced that the work will be in its touring repertoire for the coming season.
The concert began with a performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D, Op. 44, No. 1, which seemed only partly successful to me. The playing had lots of energy and precision, but I thought the nervous tension was ratcheted up a bit too high and the tonal quality a little too thick for Mendelssohn. Maybe I’m giving way to a clichéd view of this composer, but until his tragic final quartet I like more lightness of spirit in his music than I heard here. The Menuetto was the most satisfactory movement, both sweet and propulsive. And to be fair, this was far from a bad performance, the ensemble obviously executing its conception of the music very well.
The qualities that worked against my satisfaction with Mendelssohn made for a splendid performance of Beethoven’s first “Razumovsky,” the Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1. This ensemble’s long experience showed vividly in the powerful projection of this music, with its wide dynamic range and strong, abrupt contrasts. The rhythms of the second movement didn’t come across with the knife-edged clarity of some contemporary quartets but they were vivid enough, maybe even more convincingly Beethovenian. This performance, and overall the entire concert, was a wonderful way to conclude this landmark season, one of the best I’ve heard in more than four decades of Maverick-going.
As a postscript, I want to add that I don’t usually review Maverick’s non-classical concerts here, but the Saturday night concert wasn’t entirely thus. Pianist Warren Bernhardt and folk-rock songwriter and singer Marc Black have been collaborating for 42 years, and most of what they performed was outside the classical realm (although Black celebrated the Maverick Centenary by singing some 100-year-old songs and Bernhardt played Felix Arndt’s 100-year-old novelty rag “Nola”). But Bernhardt, known mostly for his work in jazz and popular music, plays classical music as a “hobby” and has given a number of all-classical concerts in Woodstock. As part of this event he played two pieces of Chopin, the Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1, and the Etude, Op. 25, No. 1, with his usual technical mastery, mellow sound, and musical projection. It would be great to hear him play another all-classical concert if he’s in the mood.