At summer festivals one can witness the birth and death of a string quartet within the span of a single evening. Ad hoc foursomes have no right to sound as commanding and refined as the one we heard at Halcyon Music Festival’s concert last night at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth NH. Violinist Maria Ioudenitch, Artist Diploma graduate of New England Conservatory and winner of the 2022 Harvard Musical Association Arthur W. Foote Award, took the first chair. She can boast of an extraordinarily attractive tone with deeply expressive qualities, inerrant chops, and confidence to lead. Bostonian favorite, violinist Gabriela Diaz; peripatetic violist David Harding, Daedalus Quartet, and cellist Thomas Kraines joined her for a reference account of Debussy’s only quartet, a radically successful and evergreen departure from classical forms and harmony.
Animé et très décidé or as one might say animated and adamantine, the first movement immediately revealed a graceful and lived-in ensemble with all of the subtleties, refinements and agreed-upon nuances of balance, accent, shape and color that one would expect from a full-time ensemble. The group could encompass exquisite tenderness, gregarious extroversion, as well as an emphatic firmness heated and annealed. Furthermore their interpretation could surprise us with originalities of expression and inflection. They made all of this manifest within six minutes or so!
The bright-eyed pizzes of the Assez vif et bien rythmé led to generously infected tunes came across with the sunshine of Gallic flair. Ioundenitch’s brilliance without glare inspired loads of sonic smiles from her partners, including her alter-ego, the ever-welcome Diaz. The movement ended with an extreme pppp that only a superbly quiet space can permit, summoning a stately barque on a cosmic Mer.
Cellist Kraines and violist Harding traded the opening tune with intensity in opening of the Andantino, doucement expressif; it expanded into the deepest pathos as the four voices shared and amplified it in an account of note.
Très modéré – En animant peu à peu – Très mouvementé et avec passion marks the instructions for the closing movement. Wonderfully gooey parallel harmonies cycled about as canonic gestures rose to theatrical fff agitation. Layers piled up like a confectioner’s towering showpiece. But strong, and impressive bones supported this most impressive and palate-pleasing goo.
The sine nomine foursome should consider incorporating.
The evening had opened with an account of Mozart’s G Minor Viola Quintet K. 516 from another ad-hoc ensemble purpose-built from the residents of Halcyon’s two-week summer encampment. The four strong players, violinists Ben Sayevich and Laurel Gagnon, violists Katherine Murdoch and Marcus Thompson, and cellist Peter Stumpf, matched well temperamentally. In the first theme of the Allegro violinist Sayevitch made the case for an urgency which kept moving. The repeated eighth notes which underpin it, never felt relentless, and of course everyone gets the tune at some point. In the question and answer Menuetto:Allegretto intense accents made their points well. The sublime muted Adagio explored many levels of urgent p- ppp with very innig restraint and reliable beauty of tone. The fourth movement begins adagio before surprisingly gearshifting into allegro and a rondo. The ensemble handled these contrasts without lurching, concluding bright, fleet, and correct, with lucid trills and great fp accents. Never rising to the drama of the Debussy, perhaps because the Mozart never indicated fortissimos, the performance nonetheless registered as thoughtful ensemble work from experienced pros.
The genial Gabriella Diaz introduced the middle work Charles Ives’s only piano trio, which we can summarize here by quoting BMInter Vance Koven’s description:
Charles Ives only piano trio (1904-1911), despite its knuckle-busting complexity and often spiky sounds has become a repertory staple, at least for the last couple of generations of performers. It holds a special place in Ives’s output, as well, dating from the first decade of the 20th century, while Ives was working on his Third Symphony. It is, as J. Peter Burkholder explained in his magisterial treatise on Ives’s compositional techniques, All Made of Tunes, structurally and substantively different from almost everything else he wrote. For one thing, except for the raucous quodlibet scherzo, famously titled “TSIAJ” for “this scherzo is a joke,” and the closing quotation of the hymn “Rock of Ages” (“Toplady” is the name of the tune, by Thomas Hastings), the themes are all Ives originals. For another thing, the first movement employs a structure Ives never again used. It’s actually a very clever approach: a melody begins in cello and the piano’s upper register (sometimes played with one hand, but Papadakis used both), which progresses from atonal complexity to tonal simplicity. Then, the violin and piano lower register goes over the same territory with different notes, and then all the parts play the same notes together, revealing the “complete” musical material, ending on a major chord. As Ives put it in a note to accompany the work’s public premiere in 1948, the movement depicts a lecture by a Yale philosophy professor (the whole work is a reminiscence of Ives’s college days, at the time of writing less than a decade gone by), with the auditors gradually moving from perplexity to comprehension.
As noted, the scherzo is a gallimaufry of tunes, one of Ives’s few actual quodlibets, mostly now-long-forgotten college songs, plus a handful of recognizable popular tunes of the 19th century (e.g. Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”) all jumbled together in different keys, kaleidoscopically distorted, rhythmically pushed and pulled, and ending, most incongruously of all, on a short V-I cadence (nobody called out the echo of the Ives in the Iwanek, so we’re doing it here).
The finale, a reflection on a campus church service ending with the quoted hymn, is sincere, in a simpler harmonic style (thus making the work mirror the processes of the first movement, or perhaps vice versa) and tinged with late Victorian sentiment. The principal theme is given to the cello. After a jazzier midsection the hymn in the coda was heartfelt hymn feels welcome, but the emptying out of the Protestant churches in the Northeast in the late 20th century has largely stripped away this music’s context for contemporary audiences, and even for the players. Ives would have taken the audience’s familiarity with these tunes for granted. Today audiences need explications for the embedded morsels.
Under cellist David Hardy’s modernist, and somewhat threatening opening meanders, Artistic Director Heng-Jin Park, breathing fire at the piano, let us know for certain that we had left the safety of Mozart’s minuetting behind. By the time violinist Monica Pegis entered at bar 28, the rather abstract argument had gained even more vehemence. Fragmented, forward-looking, and desultory, this Moderato movement encouraged the independence of the three individuals; they seemed to inhabit private but parallel realms.
Ives assembled the presto with drawing-room and church-choir nostalgia seen through a lens of adolescent Yalie irony. It sounded like a radio tuned to several simultaneous stations which would mysteriously align for commercials with the same jingle. At times loud and energetic, always garrulous and lapel grabbing, the threesome left no doubt of their commitment to play to the crowd. The Moderato con moto closing movement begins as a parody or an homage to Brahms…or both. The players reveled in the guessing game as tunes made brief bows, disappeared under cloud-covers of accidentals and competing ideas before reemerging like shafts of sunlight as the overcast broke. We wondered at times if we were developing a case of ADD…and yet when the time came for Ives to take his leave, Hardy’s eloquent cello intoned “Rock of Ages” for the ages…before the song atomized into a (perhaps) profound or profoundly unanswered question.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer