Last Sunday marked the the Boston-based art song collaborative series WordSong first venture without singers. Inviting the Arneis Quartet (Heather Braun and Rose Drucker, violins; Daniel Dona, viola; and Agnes Kim, cello) to the Emmanuel Episcopal Church Parish Hall, composers Tom Schnauber, Howard Frazin (both organizers of the series), and Andy Vores provided works to go alongside the venerable Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata,” a reponse to Leo Tolstoy’s novel. “No Texting Please” conveyed that everything heard was inspired by words left unsung.
Unlike the other pieces, Schnauber’s Die Harfe centered on a string trio of two violins and viola, leaving off Kim on cello. The short trio clocked in at around two minutes. In those two minutes, however, Schnauber set up a Romantic style melody and accompaniment, reminiscent of Schubert. This comparison was completely intentional; Schnauber talked about how he discovered a poem by his late father printed in German (reproduced with translation in the handout). Saying that the poem was a bit behind the times and sounded quite Romantic in origin, Schnauber reacted accordingly, resulting in a lighthearted opener.
Finds also by Schnauber followed, this time making use of the full quartet. Broken up into four movements, “Heater,” “Air,” “Gem,” and “Relic” all loosely telling an imagined story, the quartet focused on creating short characters in each movement. Reacting to the imagined story, the first movement clearly was a jig, dance rhythms laying down a distinct rhythm. Though perhaps straight forward, Schnauber pushed the limits of the tonal language of the movement, stretching A major to near breaking point, while experimenting with blending colors, such as having Braun on Violin I play a bowed passage while Kim on Cello colored the line with pizzicatos. “Air” resembled an aria with just enough dissonance and form changes to not be predictable. Dissonant passages obscured the centricity to B-flat just enough to pull some of the voices away from it into near atonal territory. Each member of the quartet soloed on this movement, giving everyone a chance to show the lyric characteristics of their instruments. Overall, though still referential to the past in its liberal use of full quartet tutti, “Air” carved out an identity for itself in the cycle.
“Gem” abandoned all hesitation and ground in on the dissonance. The texture freely moved the voices in and out of pizzicatos, bending each instrument’s role constantly. Frequently, composite lines emerged from material passing back and forth between Violin I/Cello and Violin II/Viola, destabilizing what had been up to this movement a fairly melody/accompaniment-based work. This fact showed on the performers; everyone on stage looked like they needed to focus a lot harder to ensure their parts synched up and did not begin tearing apart, a real potential problem. To round it all out, “Relic” introduced an interesting formal concept: long harmonic passages melting away into a relic of the past in the form of a waltz. Reminiscent of Charles Ives’s cumulative form, the non-vibrato playing of each member of the quartet was unsettling. Composite and collage materials formed from the harmonic denseness only to fall back into the texture, only cementing when the waltz had been fully exposed. Formally, the concept was quite novel. The movement could have been a bit longer, though, to expand the ideas and allow the audience to drink in the atmosphere.
Howard Frazin generated his first string quartet from two songs in a cycle based on the poetry of Donald Hall. He derived “Fall” and “Winter” movements from the soon-to-be-premiered song cycle, using the poems “The Wish” for the first and “The Child” for the second. When he rewrote them for the quartet, though, Frazin attempted to recontextualize the material into string writing. Suffice to say, it sounded like an art song melody and accompaniment to string quartet. “Fall” expanded the color palette right away, giving a solo to second violin Drucker for her to play on the violin’s meaty G string. For the material in question, Frazin made the best choice; the melody cut through the ensemble with a heaviness, not darkness, only afforded by the violin’s G string. As the movement went along, however, it began to delve into more instrumental idiosyncratic material, becoming less of a transcription of the art song and more of a paraphrase of it, slipping into elements of polytonality. When the composer adhered less strictly to the original song, the writing shined far better. The same situation happened in “Winter,” though pitch centricity began freely moving around, showing a change in thought process to the vocal line. The movement stuck to a strong melody, like before, but sometimes the melody melded in with the homogenous accompaniment, a choice that may or may not have been intentional but used to good effect regardless. Braun could spread her wings a bit more here, active arpeggiated passages making her fingers work acrobatically on the fingerboard. The movement ended quietly and contemplatively before breaking out into far more consistently instrumental writing with “Spring.” The only movement not based on a previous art song showed that it wasn’t quite readily, letting the instruments spring to life (pardon the pun). Within the first few measures, the strings, especially Braun and Drucker, essentially woke up. Activity sprung up in each voice, fragmenting melodic cells and passing them around the quartet with each player playing in imitation. Frazin opened up the registration too, Braun and Drucker playing with two octaves separating their violins at some points. Other melodic fragments interrupted pre-existing ones, making the movement freer flowing and less tied to one singular melody. The final movement, in essence, was a breath of fresh air, rounding out the quartet with more idiomatic string writing.
String Quartet No. 5 “Confirmation Bias” from Berklee’s own Andy Vores opened the second half on a melancholic note. Vores responded to the same story Janacek did, Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. Rather than singing the story’s praises, however, Vores hated the work, opting instead to respond by contextualizing what he believed to be an inferior novel in our modern cooperative world, contrasting the novel’s selfish and narcissistic characters against modern times [where there are none such?]. Ironically, the more dissonant and motivic representations of the characters held interest much more readily, sounding quite a lot like John Adams, driving pulse being the main focal point while melodic cells entered and exited. The moment the pulse broke down, sparser entrances took over the piece, each with a fragment meant to represent a character (falling minor seconds for Pozdnyshev, sul ponticello dyads for his wife, and 4-string violin arpeggios for the virtuoso Trou. Each player remained independent except for when trios emerged on sul ponticello minor seconds. The ordering of the material developed in a more interesting fashion; strange how then this section centered on Vores’s contempt for the novel. The ensemble invested tons of energy into the B material; all players on the edge of their seats and actively counting. The Vores showed a dichotomy of modernity and reconciling art of the past, grappling with the antiquated principles of high modernity in the process; in writing this quartet, Vores unintentionally flipped the content on its head and made the music of the past more involved than the music of today.
In his monolithic String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata” Janáček invited himself himself into the story, faithfully representing it in his music using folk music zeal. He doled out melodies more readily to the other players, giving Violin II, Viola, and Cello as much to do as Violin I. The real star of the performance, though, had to be Braun. Her solos as first showed a care and intensity to her craft, forceful enough to take control of the quartet but not overpowering, passionate and aggressive but not overbearing. It was wonderful to hear this realization of the modern principle of equally distributing material throughout the quartet landscape, letting a skilled hand to show her musicianship. The others did fantastically with the far more limited material given to them, making each instrument sound like an individual rather than a support mechanism. Janáček let melodies rise and sink into the textures, highlighting different voices of the ensemble without diverting much attention away from the forward trajectory. The fragments forced each quartet member to transform with frequent fluidly from accompaniment to the melody and back, in a strong collaborative outing.
WordSong should consider doing another concert like this one. “Songs” without words, albeit inspired by them, remain interesting relics. This reviewer/composer would certainly enjoy the challenge. This style could blaze a new path for the ensemble’s expressions alongside its current path of having multiple composers set the same text. Dichotomy is key.
Ian Wiese is a graduate student in composition at NEC, where he studies with Kati Agocs.