At home in Slosberg Hall Brandeis on Saturday night, the latest version of the Lydian String Quartet debuted with the Mozart Dissonant, Bartok No. 2, the Ravel, and the premiere of a commission by faculty colleague Yu-Hui Chang. The “new” appellation refers to the succession to the first violin chair of 30-year-old Andrea Segar (MB and MM NEC, PhD SUNY-Stony Brook; competition prizes) after the retirement of veteran Daniel Stepner, himself only the second since its founding, in 1980.
From this recital’s evidence, Segar brings a somewhat smoother, creamier, more tuneful and portamento-rich approach to the group’s tone. And where past performances (even a competitive late Beethoven set) sometimes exhibited unleisurely, “let’s get through this” pacing, there was none of that in Slosberg hall, a small, pleasantly loud if rather dead space that abets forward sonics.
The famous opening of Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet, the last of a group famously blurbed by dedicatee Haydn (“the greatest composer I know, in person and by name” etc.), broke carefully and gorgeously as sour dawn, the gray, pink, and orange slants slowly forming into sunrise. But from there the day blurred a bit, and at many moments homogenized, even becoming muddy. I attributed this partly to settling-in. Regardless, a person next to me observed, “You know where other quartets are playing senza vibrato in unison and then switch on throbbing and it’s all perfectly overlaid and aligned, each instrument? They don’t quite do that”.
For over three decades the Lydian String Quartet—currently comprising, besides new kid Segar, founding violinist Judith Eissenberg, whose exemplary lec-dem work I know from alumni events; violist Mark Berger; and cellist Joshua Gordon—have labored locally (among others) alongside the BU’s Muir (founded in 1980 also), and, since 1992, the Borromeo at NEC and the Gardner, whose achievement has cast a large shadow in this town. Not to mention all of the new expert sometime in-towners (mostly recently Parker and Jupiter), with their razor precision and transparent delicacy. But the sturdy Lyds have abided.
Bartok’s Quartet No. 2 looks yearningly back to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night of 15 years earlier (the first movement) and ahead to bleak, gray Shostakovich (the last movement). The middle movement’s “barbaric frenzy” (per Berger’s program note) needed here to be “scarier,” as an attending chamber music presenter put it: more “leopard than kitten on the keys”. It is said to presage, or perhaps partly enact, the Great War. When last heard hereabouts from such as the Chiara, Takacs, Borromeo and others, the work showed its scariness in full. In other words, this performance demonstrated some of the same loveliness and legato penchants as the Mozart. Indeed, a local chamber music veteran afterward was heard to murmur something about “bel canto.”
In whatever style, the Lydian Quartet did play the heck out of it.
Chang’s premiere is titled Mind Like Water. This Brandeis faculty colleague has an impressive resume, with Guggenheim and American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowships, Fromm and Koussevitzky commissions, curatorial and group directorial posts. Someone should have reviewed her notes with her:
‘Water’ is often used in Eastern philosophy to describe the ideal state of a person’s mind or high moral quality. … [its] softness and ability to yield lend it its power to penetrate what is seemingly impenetrable. It benefits all things on earth, yet it does not compete with any—a manifestation of the high morals that those in power should follow. Zen Buddhism’s “mind like water” teaching has a more personal perspective—one is to empty the mind, not to become unfeeling, but to allow space for full awareness and to obtain true freedom. The intention of this string quartet is not to “express” these concepts, but rather, these concepts are “practiced” in the composition. I wish the music in this piece to have the same state of mind (if music can have a mind of its own), where the musical movements are fluid and free, ready to embrace all possibilities, showing strength but do not overwhelm, and allowing space for the minute to be fully appreciated. Technically the musical materials are treated with a method similar to “stream of consciousness”, a narrative mode that can be found in novels such as Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway.’ Many gestures are inspired by the smooth and supple movements of calligraphy brush strokes as well.
All righty. Chang’s short effort was quite like brushstrokes, yes. Light trillings got passed about, conveyed with emphases, pauses, and then repeat, and repeat. One- and two-note fragments, their drama realized again and again by crescendo. Sonic calligraphy, fascinating once. It was not conversational à la Carter, intricately and densely or otherwise, which is pretty unusual for modern quartet composition, even as premised on supposed Asian vibe.
The closing Ravel Quartet featured more legato loveliness, elegantly rounded phrasing yet with less initial bite and accent than other approaches. No matter: it was fully formed—“stylish, patient, relaxed”, pointed out the presenter. The “very slow” third movement positively shimmered.