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Fiery and Icy Tones of Lerdahl


An intimate gathering was on hand to catch the Daedalus Quartet which, after a few years absence, returned to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to honor composer Fred Lerdahl. His fourth string quartet, which he recently composed for them, showed a rare and natural partnership. Another recent work, written for the unusual combination of soprano and double bass and performed by Elizabeth Fischborn and Edwin Barker, reigned fiery and icy tones on a famous Robert Frost poem. Lerdahl’s noble recasting of Ravel’s popular La Valse, among other classics in three-four time, revealed yet another kind of fine alliance. His Waltzes dating from 1981 were meant for “summer listening.”

I quote from Fred Lerdahl’s program notes. Hard to believe but this composer who was there in Calderwood Hall said not a word, only taking well deserved bows to ardent applause coming at the end of the early Thursday evening concert that proceeded without intermission.

One can recognize through all of these four pieces on the program an erudite mind that lies behind a highly comprehensible musical language. On YouTube one can learn about Lerdahl’s approach to writing even from the title of his presentation at Le Collège de France, “Musical Syntax and its Relation to Linguistic Syntax.” In that lecture he refers to Humboldt systems wherein a limited set of rules or principles produce an infinite output.

Lucidity prevails throughout Lerdahl’s music, and one can find oneself liking the kinetics of his music without precisely knowing why. That same way of not knowing why resembles in ways similar to experiences with, say, Bach, so it must be a good thing. The Gardner Museum webpage reintroduces the composer. “Lerdahl studied at Lawrence, Princeton, and Tanglewood. He has taught at UC/Berkley, Harvard, and Michigan and since 1991 has been Fritz Reiner Professor Musical Composition at Columbia, where he directed the composition program for 20 years. Lerdahl is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Three of his works composed since 2000…have been finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music.”

Give and Take (2014) for violin and cello opened the show and immediately caught this listener’s attention, holding it for quite a length of time but then on and off on the way to the end. Lerdahl’s closeness to stringed instruments was evident in sonorous harmonies and an outpouring of string techniques that never, however, suggest those extended techniques we often have to bear from those avant-gardists. For the most part, Min-Young Kim and Thomas Kraines met Lerdahl’s sometimes acute challenges, with but a few “almosts.” Absolutely ear binding were his very own brand of unravelling tight imitations between the two instruments that would happily resurface during the evening’s fare.

Lerdahl’s String Quartet No. 4, Chaconne (2016) and the Daedalus Quartet were inborn partners. An ebb and flow of tempo, of simpler patterns developing into more advanced patterns, and of fresh formations with recurring ones in a single 19-minute movement cast a spell at once playful and reachable then thoughtful and elusive. The often fleeting stances found Daedalus in lockstep suavely quiet, deeply resonant, affectingly lyrical, and riotously articulate. Here there was sufficient puzzling in “an expressive world that is outward and transparent, one that delights in playful patterns” in the words of the composer.

Suddenly, after tiptoeing back and forth in tight, close-up imitative surfaces in Fire and Ice (2015), Elizabeth Fischborn and Edwin Barker broke out in genuinely alarming sensation, propelling Frost’s poem into musical expression far, far beyond spoken expression. Evidence of their stunning performance marked with higher and still higher to unbelievably highest of pitch both tonally and emotionally came in spontaneous uninhibited acclaim from those of us, nearly all of us sitting in close proximity—that kind that Calderwood can offer— to these giant performers.    

Fred Lerdahl (file photo)

Lerdahl’s Waltzes, 12 of them, occasionally modernized, tinkered with, masterfully re-harmonized, and charmingly remodeled melodies of past composers. An old Viennese type of introduction would seem it had seen Picasso. Swirling gestures here and maybe a disagreement over who’s leading in the waltz there were followed by laughter-like emanations—did we catch a glimpse of those Romantic era lovers, Clara and Robert Schumann?

There were many levels on which to focus in these just-right-sized slightly rear-view dances. Daedalus with Edwin Barker, who unseated the second violin, could very well make cocktails and appetizers ever so delicious, dreaming on, though, with Lerdahl’s lovingly personable and ever so bright revelations.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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