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The Attacc of Shostakovich, Pärt, and Reich


Steve Reich does “Clapping Music” (Stephanie Mitchell photo)

Pianist Stephen Prutsman and violinist Danny Koo joined the Attacca Quartet for 20th-century music meditating on human history’s cyclical upheavals and quiescent repose.  “War and Peace” (Tolstoy was absent) continued Week 2 of r:EVOLUTION in Rockport.

Against the glittering backdrop of sunset over Sandy Bay, Attacca Quartet took to the stage for Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 3 in F Major, op. 73. The five-movement work dates from 1946, a somber, giddy, deceptive, and finally depressing time in the history of the Soviet Union, Russians, and the life of the composer. Originally penned programmatically with descriptive titles for each movement, the this music’s tone can aptly summarized in the heading of the finale: “The Eternal Question: Why? And for What?” The New York-based Attacca Quartet (Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violin; Nathan Schram, viola; Andrew Yee, cello) offered a compelling reading with verve and élan, capturing the complex history the composer encodes in this score. The first movement, Allegretto, embarks with a carnival theme: folksy, happy, then the music box winds down. The marionette escapes his strings (shades of Shostakovich’s 1954 Festive Overture, op. 96, on the death of Stalin) and then the music gets even more interesting. The development turns into four musicians in search of a string quartet, before falling back into reprisals of the opening theme. Surprise: the flea circus appears to end the movement. In the second movement, Moderato con moto, a dark viola ostinato sets the tone for wartime Shostakovich’s darkling anguish and powerful glory. The addition of delicacy is an unexpected bonus, the music proceeding on tiptoe. Prefiguring Reich’s Different Trains, agogic accents drive to the fore: the madness of war as life tries to continue in its ever shrinking interstices. From ostinato continuity to desperation, the third movement, Allegro non troppo, swells with a percussive opening. The first violin announces a scherzo of frenetic energy; this is demented, powerful, a forced tightrope march catapulting to the end. The penultimate Adagio opens in unison, a tragic theme that contains something quite akin to Fauré. Here we hear Shostakovich’s private grief and elegy for all that was lost in the Siege of Stalingrad and the irremediable destruction of war. The violins drop out, and the viola and cello carry us, attacca, into the concluding Moderato. In the passacaglia the viola mourns, from which grow the riffs of the cello. Interruption concluded, we return to a string quartet. A mad march (shades of the first movement): some there are who always dance during war, profiting from the chaos and destruction. Intensity and grief swell; a muted carnival theme returns, sadder for this journey. We pick up the pieces. Life drones on.

This music remains, as I tried inchoately to articulate during the intermission, utterly sui generis. It is manifestly Shostakovich, his signature lies obvious upon it. Yet the organization and cohesion of the whole is idiosyncratic, organic, impossible yet right. It is as though the composer set down intentional violation of canonic rules, succeeded, and we are the richer for these fertile musings on febrile occasions. The Attacca Quartet owned this music, reanimating it in all its messy and lived madness. Nothing here is domesticated or housebroken. Stalin wasn’t, so why should this music be?

The second half of the program was presented attacca, Arvo Pärt sandwiching Reich: peace surrounding war. Curtains and shutters closed, projection screen lowered, all six musicians took the stage and we experienced light in the darkness of the hull of this concert-hall/ship. Danny Koo (violin) and Stephen Prutsman (piano) began and ended this half with Pärt’s Fratres (the 1980 transcription of music originally dating to 1977) and Spiegel im Spiegel (1978), respectively. Koo performed the opening of Fratres with the intensity of J. S. Bach’s music for solo violin, turning the solo chiaroscuro into polyphonic lines of sound and shifting harmonies; Prutsman entered with the certitude and ringing clarity of bells. The message of fraternity found its counterpart in the ending mirror, calm and simplicity showing us our better selves. Both performers succeeded in Pärt’s unique genius: crafting living worlds from the paucity of silence and single tones, animating an emotional journey unique to each of us, breathing beauty of peace into a world of war.

In the midst of this second half sat Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988). Commissioned by Kronos Quartet, this tripartite work is scored for string quartet and recorded tape, and takes us on a journey from “America—Before the War,” through “Europe—During the War” to a world “After the War.” The tape includes Kronos Quartet and voices; the cadences of Holocaust survivors Rachella, Paul, and Rachel (the composer’s contemporaries), mid-century American Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, and Reich’s governess, Virginia, give rise to “speech melody.” Integral to any performance of this work is a good sound engineer; here Jessy Lewis rose to the challenge admirably. I know this music well and have loved it for a very long time. When I heard Kronos Quartet perform Different Trains one summer many years ago in the courtyard of a Yale college, I was struck by the seamless blend between live and recorded sound. Fitting, since the musicians were playing along with recordings of themselves. Last May the Parker Quartet played this work at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust; the quartet gave as fine a reading of their part as one could ask, marred by an incompetent sound engineer miscuing the tape. (I still hope to hear the Parker Quartet perform this work, now with a good sound engineer. I am convinced it will be sublime.) In this performance, Attacca Quartet brought focus, intensity, and emotion; train whistles performed on strings had a personalized quality to them, an added resonance of meaning and the speech melodies came to life in their fingers and bows.

Attacca Quartet, at Tennessee Tech Wednesday.

This Rockport Music performance included a video accompanying Different Trains, created by the Spanish artist Beatriz Caravaggio as a BBVA Foundation commission. Drawing on archival footage from the 1940s, both of American and of European trains, and projecting the spoken words heard on the tape, this is a visual vade mecum accompanying Reich’s electrifying music. Across the backstage of Shalin Liu Performance Center, the screen was sometimes one image wide, sometimes in stereo, and sometimes three identical video images across. Readers of Spanish can learn more about the film, and all can see snippets of it HERE.

Caravaggio is not the first video artist to illustrate Reich’s composition. All start with footage of trains and train tracks, and include images of European Jewry in cattle cars. Perhaps as time goes by, it becomes more important that we see these images. For my part, I found this music video a familiar reinforcement of what I already know to be in the music. It fit well. It did not detract from the music, and for this reason I count Caravaggio’s work to be a success. I cannot appreciably say that it added to my understanding or enjoyment of the music either. Then again, I don’t know that any video would, so perhaps this limitation is more revelatory of me than of the visual artist.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra

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