IN: Reviews

Semiosis Challenged All Around


Zan Berry, guest cellist

Boston’s Semiosis Quartet players challenged themselves and their audience with “An American Century.” From a medium of messaging to a discordant threshold, the young and, could it be said, daring foursome took quite a bite out of music by five of our country’s women composers. Becoming mainstays Price, Seeger, and Zwilich featured with newcomers Washington and Shaw.

It is worth noting that this program was made possible in part by a grant from the American Music Project. The Thursday evening exposition at New School of Music in Cambridge will be repeated Friday evening at Lindsey Chapel, Emmanuel Church, in Boston.

Shelley Washington’s 2016 “Say,” another entry to succumb to minimalism, came with a personal message, and it required extra-quartet actions, in this case, percussion and singing. The composer’s lengthy text begins “I must have been in the first grade or kindergarten when some kid said the ‘n’ word in front of me.” Semiosis clapped, body slapped, stomped, and finger-clicked while often simultaneously having to play their instruments, pulling it all off rather convincingly. Shadowy swinging pizzicato from cellist Zan Berry and shifty textures from the foursome also involved singing, at times, in simple harmonies. With amateurishness, Semiosis invoked a high schooler’s plea to “Say it/Say it/Say it.” Seemingly Semiosis felt close to this work posing as serious play.

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet 1931 seeks a threshold of discordance and disagreement that challenged a brave Semiosis. Notes leapt here and there without sureness, with instrumental independence not always chiseled. Some first movement moments pleased: a deeply rich viola of Lauren Nelson, a deep growling cello of Zan Berry, and a bright pairing of violins of Nicole Parks and Kyra Davies. A moment from the sustained second movement rolled out right before the long drawn out tones broke out with notes flying. Seeger’s fourth movement had the first violin all alone and obviously challenged, with the opposing three confidently commenting as one.

An oversized Semiosis faced an undersized room at the New School of Music. The few quieted parcels of Seeger’s setting sprouted reprieve from the quartet’s frequently unbridled enthusiasm. And such would be the case, too, for another quartet in the same decade from an American woman.

Florence B. Price’s String Quartet in G Major (1929) found some of its rural roots, its kindness, with Semiosis. The quartet’s openly warm inviting vibrato in the first bars of the Allegro promised more of the same down the road. However, the determined four generated more energy than was really needed for Price’s other-place and other-time. How far can one go in the realm of interpretation before the meaning, both cultural and musical, becomes something other, or worse, is entirely lost? With clearer signs of a relaxed and happy nature seen on the four faces, Price’s dancing passages painting her America, did almost come off, though,. The picked-up tempo at the first movement’s close synced in every way, providing another sign of considerable potential with Semiosis.

Semiosis Quartet in file photo.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s String Quartet No. 2 (1998) created more performance difficulties than any other work on the program. Zwilich’s own writing about it takes suspect steps. “I awoke one day with a strong image of a string quartet totally unlike the soprano, alto, tenor, bass choir like ‘layer cake” on violin I on violin II on viola on cello.” Thinking back to Ruth Crawford Seeger’s un-layered cake and remembering a huge host of other such works down through history, what could Zwilich have been thinking? What I heard was music lost in itself while running over old paths dotted with a few flashes of fantasy. Semiosis, though, played with conviction covering old routes with serious commitment and better command.

Caroline Shaw’s 2012 “Valencia” exploded with absolutely the best kind of playing. The composer writes, “There is something exquisite about the construction of an ordinary orange.” The “billowing harmonics and somewhat viscous chords and melodies” took to a Spanish flavor. Shaw’s idiomatic string writing and Semiosis’ high voltage zest made for a perfect match.

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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