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Unflagging Craft Ensemble Rewards

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The Craft Ensemble, a newish grouping of mostly Boston-based freelance women with a string quartet at its core, expands and contracts as needed with keyboard, clarinet and strings. This core, comprising violinists Colleen Brannen and Amy Sims, violist Amelia Hollander Ames, and cellist Velléda Miragias,  performed on Saturday an imaginative collection of works written between 1919 and 1931 (they called it their “Art Deco” program) as part of an also newish concert series sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Medford.

They opened with their gnarliest and possibly most rewarding piece, the more-often-heard-of-than-heard Quartet (1931) by Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953; she was still Ruth Crawford at the time). Written in Berlin while on a Guggenheim Fellowship, it demonstrates mastery of the principles of dissonant counterpoint then in vogue and as advocated by, among others, her teacher and future husband Charles Seeger. While not 12-tone in the Schoenbergian way (she reportedly kept aloof from him, Bartók, and other noted avant-gardists because of their condescending attitude toward American composers), it typically manipulates materials in similar ways, that is by relating pitches, dynamics and articulations strictly to each other and not to an underlying set of harmonic principles, and by inverting the relationship between consonance and dissonance. If you want to go deeper into the weeds, there’s a detailed and engaging analysis here, which informs some of our explanation). The first movement, for example, pits a generally arching 10-note tune in the first violin (elegantly but somewhat diffidently played by Sims, in the first chair for this piece only) against complex counterpoint in the other instruments. The tune is not so much developed or varied as it is reassembled, with the first note shifted to the end until it all comes around again. The second movement, a not at all jolly scherzo, flits by, while the slow movement, considered by many the highlight, is an innovative study in generating a melody of sorts through the dynamic pulses of the instruments, which are bowed as near continuously as possible. We have mentioned this movement once before in a discussion, of all things, of the famous Adagio from Barber’s 1937 quartet, in terms of how it generates a similar increase in tension through compressing harmonic intervals and raising the pitch; but whereas Barber releases the tension after the climax with a spacious consonant chord, Crawford Seeger creates an explosion of fireworks that dissipates the energy rather like the end of the second movement of Ives’s Fourth Symphony. The Craft quartet was admirable in its realization of this technically and emotionally challenging movement. The finale is another textural tour de force, creating in essence a Bachian two-part invention between the first violin and the other three instruments playing in unison or octaves. The players are clearly committed to this piece, and you should keep an eye out for them (or at least it) when you have a chance to take it in.

The impulse Barber followed within one movement of his quartet seemed to animate the quartet’s sense to follow the Crawford Seeger with the Lullabye, written in 1919 by George Gershwin initially as an exercise while studying theory and composition with Dvořák pupil Rubin Goldmark, who also taught Aaron Copland. While it is somewhat timid doing so, it clearly shows Gershwin bringing his Tin Pan Alley sensibility to classical forms, and also demonstrates some creative performance techniques, with prominent harmonics “whistling” the intro (Brannen—not, by the way, Brennan, as the bulletin had it—with solid technique but somewhat lacking in clarion prominence). While we’ve heard more persuasive performances of it, the Craft foursome brought out its sweet tunefulness commendably.

Foregoing an intermission, the evening proceeded directly to another neglected charmer, the Phantasy by Imogen Holst (1907-1984), written in 1928 for, and winning, the Cobbett Prize administered by the Worshipful Company of Musicians. If you see a piece of chamber music called a “Phantasy,” in that archaic spelling, it was probably written for the Cobbett: among the more famous winners were phantasies by Frank Bridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. Imogen Holst’s composing career, like that of Crawford Seeger but for different reasons, was intermittent. Her early works, like the Phantasy, reflect the English pastoral traditions exemplified by her father Gustav and, in this case more pertinently, by her Royal College of Music teacher Vaughan Williams, though hers displays a structural tightness differing from RVW’s and Bridge’s Cobbett winners, and in some ways prophetic of Britten’s from four years later. Later pieces like her string quartet from 1982, while still respecting the values of the pre-World War I tradition, display more bite. Her fame long rested on her work as a conductor, overseer of her father’s catalogue, and second in command to Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival. The performance, another specialty of the Crafts, was lush, warm, robust and full-bodied. Brannen’s lovely riffs sounding like lost wisps from The Lark Ascending were truly charming. You can get some sense of it from their fairly recent video here, but Saturday’s performance was better—we noticed that they were recording, so perhaps they’ll replace the current recording online.

Another bold programming choice produced their closing essay, Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, op. 50 (1931). Written while Prokofiev was still resident in the US, before succumbing to the blandishments of the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) to return to the USSR, it was commissioned by and first performed at the Library of Congress. Chamber music was not, to judge by his skimpy output, Prokofiev’s particular métier, and he only completed two string quartets. Unlike the charming but regime-compliant No. 2, No. 1 is a study in intensity. It opens with a taut and pronounced theme (Brannen strong out of the box) that is processed through a dizzying array of key and meter changes and slippery chromaticism. The quartet gave it a good, vigorous reading. The second movement opens with a slow, darkly brooding chromatic passage that gives way suddenly to a peppery, harsh “scherzo.” Again, a fierce intensity pervaded the playing. The last movement, provocatively, is slow, with a cheerless updated Tchaikovskian moroseness engulfed in intricate counterpoint and only fleetingly lightened with a touch of bitter-sweetness. It ends as a kind of nautilus spiral of funk. Prokofiev was extremely happy with this movement, and arranged it for string orchestra and piano. The Crafts never flagged in their attention to line and color.

It is worth a call-out to First Baptist Church and its young pastor Matthew Rasure for taking up the challenge of sponsoring this high quality concert series, which presents solo, chamber, choral and even orchestral performances at its cozy and acoustically welcoming venue. There will be two more over the next fortnight. Colleagues at BMInt have reviewed a couple of prior programs in the last two years, and all concerts will be listed on our calendar. Our only critique is that the information given to audience members in the bulletin is rather thin, so if that is necessitated by budgeting constraints, performers should be encouraged to provide more oral introduction than they did Saturday (effectively annotating only the Crawford Seeger and muttering a few words about how Imogen Holst should be attended more in her own right than as Gustav’s daughter—which is true but which says nothing about the music being played).

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

Amy Sims, Velléda Miragias, Amelia Hollander Ames, Colleen Brannen

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