ETHEL (all caps, for some reason) has been a prominent ensemble in the new music scene for almost two decades. Yet aside from hearing one CD of student compositions, I had not encountered this group until Saturday night, June 25, when ETHEL led off the 2017 Maverick Concerts season in Woodstock. For some unremembered reason I hadn’t even heard the group when it played once previously at Maverick.
It soon became apparent that ETHEL fuses the string quartet with the rock band. Long spoken introductions full of self-congratulation and flattery for the audience came along with considerable amount of un-string-quartet-like mugging, moving in rhythm, lots of stomping, and singing along with some of the music. The opening number, Chai by cellist Dorothy Lawson, was hardly anything but rhythm. (Lawson’s Epic Soda, played later in the program, was mostly droning.)
I have nothing against pop music. The first record I can remember buying was a Chuck Berry 78, and I still listen often to a local pop station (WKZE in Red Hook NY) which plays diverse music with good taste. But I was disappointed in ETHEL’s repertoire and performance. There was a lot of very loud music but it didn’t have much content. And the pop music arrangements were generally the most interesting music ETHEL played, especially violist Ralph Ferris’s Janis Joplin tribute Sweet Janis.
The repertoire of this concert seemed prevalently simple if not downright simplistic. I noticed that most of the music was undemanding, even in its technical requirements. ETHEL might be perfectly capable of playing a Shostakovich Quartet but I didn’t hear any evidence of that. This concert struck me as a dinner consisting mostly of candy. There were three longer and more seriously intentioned pieces on the program.
Missy Mazzoli was introduced as someone who has reached the pinnacle of success as a classical composer. But her Quartet for Queen Mab struck me as a lot of aimless meandering. Julia Wolfe has won the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship, and she is indeed a prominent presence on the new music scene. Her Blue Dress for String Quartet started out with bluegrass fiddle styles and stretched them out to a grating, repetitious, and downright ugly quarter of an hour. Only Mary Ellen Child’s Point and Line struck me as worth the time it occupied, an interesting study in bowed melody against pizzicato accompaniment which metamorphosed into all bows, all of it filling my attention with something worthwhile.
With the cheers of the crowd ringing in my ears after an encore I found uninteresting, I slunk out into the night, wearing my critic’s hat with unaccustomed discomfort.