IN: Reviews

New Lyds’ Smooth Grooves


Rhonda Rider, the late Mary Ruth Ray, Wilma Smith and Judith Eisenberg in 1980
Rhonda Rider, the late Mary Ruth Ray, Wilma Smith and Judith Eissenberg in the late 1980s

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.

The newest Lydian Quartet (Susan WIlson photo)
The newest Lydian Quartet (Susan WIlson photo)

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.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


14 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I’ve been to most of the Lyd’s concerts in the last 15 years. This was one of the best! There were times during the Mozart (2nd and 4th movements) when I thought they were channeling the Busch Quartet. Don’t know the Bartok well, so won’t comment. But the Ravel is one of my faves and it was awesome. Overall there seemed to be more precision and less bite than usual.

    Comment by John Smith — November 1, 2016 at 11:23 am

  2. The reviewer cares a lot about the “right” tempi but doesn’t explain why the “wrong” ones don’t work. Like someone who says that San Marzano tomatoes are the only ones to use for bolognese sauce but hasn’t even tried all the other kinds yet, even though they ARE delicious…

    Comment by Ernest — November 2, 2016 at 5:28 pm

  3. Somehow, Mr. Moran seems to offend almost everything associated with this concert. Considering that this was the first concert after Dan Stepner’s retirement, I find it shocking that the reviewer would so insensitively evaluate the new violinist versus the old one. This is not a matter of the validity of his judgment – this is a matter of tact. Such abrupt comments immediately after a veteran’s departure showcase a lack of empathy. Mr. Stepner has been a loyal member and has contributed tremendously to the reputation of the quartet, and his departure deserves utmost respect.

    Moreover – acoustics of the hall. The show was sold out, with over three dozen people sitting on the stage. Such a strange disposition would surely contribute to an altered acoustic. Next time a quality of a hall is being reviewed, please consider the situation. Halls are not built with consideration for oversold shows.

    I cannot even decide where to begin when addressing comments regarding Yu-Hui Chang. Beginning with ridiculing her writing and ending with incoherent comments on the general “Asian-ness” of the work and generic comparisons to composers long passed away, this review needs at least a rewrite, if not a veto.

    The Lyds were spectacular that night – the best I’ve heard them, but they sure deserved a way classier review.

    Comment by Gleb Kanasevich — November 2, 2016 at 5:28 pm

  4. I am uncomfortable with Mr. Moran’s discussion of Dr. Yu-Hui Chang’s new work for the Lyds. Her many professional and musical accomplishments were diminished and dismissed in one sentence that called attention to her program note without risking any direct critical feedback.

    A more professional version would have been along the lines of “Dr. Chang’s program note was [critical description, and reasoning]” as opposed to the chastising “Someone should have reviewed her notes with her.”

    This sentence is condescending towards an extremely accomplished woman of color and contains no concrete or professional consideration. This tone and implied attitude is unacceptable.

    Please bear in mind that this is not against constructive negative criticism in general – my statement is against this tone of superiority and dismissal.

    The Lydian String Quartet sounded amazing. The show was more than sold out, which the review neglected to mention.

    Comment by Victoria Cheah — November 3, 2016 at 12:15 am

  5. – I liked the sound in the hall, did not say otherwise. I have heard it in many degrees of absorption since I used to practice on that Noack a half-century ago, almost. The space ain’t great, but it’s nice for chamber music, close and loud, and I didn’t mean to imply different.
    – The former first vln retired, a new kid took his place, and the ensemble sound has changed notably. You yourself write it’s the best you’ve heard them. Me too. How should the improvement you praise be described? The Emerson’s tone and approach have changed significantly, too, since a new addition, and everyone comments on it.
    – It was the composer who wrote the note specifically mentioning Eastern this and that, Zen Buddhism, brushstrokes, mind, water, morals, power, and in-the-moment-ness. Carter died four years ago. (I regret typoing Chang’s ‘materials’ as ‘material’ and will request correction.)

    Comment by david moran — November 3, 2016 at 2:41 am

  6. – I had no comment on / reaction either way to decisions of tempo (or rhythm).
    – If Chang were a Midwestern male Wasp or a millennial from a Viennese conservatory, would it make more intelligible or helpful for new listeners to read “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’…” ?

    Comment by david moran — November 3, 2016 at 12:19 pm

  7. Dr. Chang’s program note is clear to me. I agree with Ms. Cheah that Mr. Moran’s comment – “Someone should have reviewed her notes with her” – is inappropriate and demeaning.

    Comment by Joshua Hahn — November 3, 2016 at 2:49 pm

  8. I, too, find Dr. Chang’s program note perfectly clear. It’s difficult to describe such a state of exquisite receptivity — to paraphrase the music! Jean-Jacques Rousseau also invokes water to describe it, in the Fifth Walk of his Reveries: “Turning my eyes skyward, I would let myself float and drift wherever the water took me, often for several hours on end, plunged in a host of delightful reveries, which though they had no distinct or permanent subject, were still in my eyes infinitely to be preferred to all that I had found most sweet in the so-called pleasures of life.”

    Comment by Ashley — November 3, 2016 at 8:42 pm

  9. Perhaps it’s understandable that we’re all in a heightened state of sensitivity given what is happening in the world outside of the Boston music scene. That said, I would like to point out that besides the rather loaded critique of the writing style of a highly accomplished Taiwanese-American professor, the repeated use of the word “kid” to describe Dr. Segar – in the article and in the comments – can easily come across as inappropriately diminutive. I hope Mr. Moran’s comments were not intended in that spirit. Best wishes to the new Lydians and welcome back to Boston, Andrea!

    Comment by Jesse E Irons — November 3, 2016 at 10:03 pm

  10. I enjoy impressionistic guff, too, to describe about anything. ‘How’s the lamb cassoulet?’ ‘Well, it’s free, aware, moral, associative, embracing.’ (Good thing none of these commenters ever crossed paths with Virgil Thomson, however.) But here’s an actual fresh example of a listener-useful note, by one of the commenters:

    … explores the gray area between noise and vocal production in an attempt to capture the nuances demonstrated by human speech. The piece utilizes varied combinations of sustaining and percussive sounds to mimic the pairing of consonants and vowels in forming words. Consonant and vowel sounds are carefully paired to give the appearance of a continuous voice. Groups acting together as a single individual give way to soloists who continue in the role of instrument as voice.

    From this description no one could know, of course, how slight Hahn’s piece might or might not be. But having read it I would know what to try and listen for and pay attention to.

    If Irons’s exception to the word ‘kid’ (employed one time, as in new kid on the block) is not Ironic, it’s certainly droll to someone (me) of Stepner’s age.

    Comment by david moran — November 3, 2016 at 11:38 pm

  11. The new Lyds, in fine fettle, to employ geezerspeak, provided many pleasures, as the new kid indeed added and kindled a fine glow. I imagine the outgoing violinist Dan Stepner would agree with this.

    If our reviewer sounded brusque to some in his mostly positive review, the comments in response sounded like threats to report him to the dean for word crimes.

    His complaint about Yu-Hui Chang’s prose was less about the quality of her words than about whether the commissioned work delivered something less than the full measure of her lofty description. Chang’s guide to her short work primed our expectations for exotic watery realms presided over by a serene Buddha. But instead of Rauschendes Bächlein or La Mer we got choppy brushstrokes in a dry riverbed.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 4, 2016 at 9:29 am

  12. Even if it had been encased in the phrase “new kid on the block”, the word “kid” is at best an odd word choice. In my neighborhood we call members of string quartets “violinists” “violists” “cellist’s or “musicians.” What really got my dander up was “All righty.” That was more than odd; it was downright rude.

    Comment by jonathan brodie — November 4, 2016 at 9:46 am

  13. After all the discussion of the description of the new first violinist, I’d like to add a comment on her playing,which is more germane in a review/comment section. I think her Mozart was too 19th century.

    Comment by Jerry — November 4, 2016 at 6:06 pm

  14. Of course Mozart would have been a 19th century-composer if he had lived a normal span.

    Comment by denovo2 — November 4, 2016 at 7:36 pm

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