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Half a Concert at Brandeis


The Irving Fine Tribute Concert, established to honor annually the memory of the composer (1914-62) who helped to establish the Music Department at Brandeis University, took place at Slosberg Music Center on Saturday night, but was only half a program; the participation of a wind contingent from the Chameleon Arts Ensemble had to be cancelled because of illness, leaving only the top-rated Lydian String Quartet. Nevertheless the remaining half of the program turned out remarkably filling and satisfying: two string quartets twenty minutes each or less, composed seventy years apart and strikingly contemporary in sound.

David Rakowski (file photo)

Fine’s two-movement string quartet, dating from 1952, reveals the composer reaching into dense paratonal chromaticism, well beyond the Stravinsky-inspired neoclassicism of his post-Boulanger compositions (such as the Partita for wind quintet that we didn’t hear). This gritty quartet seems to reside midway along a post-World War II line of evolution that takes off where Bartók’s quartets ended and arrives at Elliott Carter’s very complex First Quartet (1951). The first movement, Allegro risoluto, began with short, sharp gestures, Scotch-snap accents, and bursts of repeated notes; the action soon coalesced into phrases that answered each other. Maybe the composer at times was remembering Alban Berg’s Opus 3 String Quartet, which mobilizes the quartet forces in a similarly forward-moving developmental manner. The eloquent second movement, Lento, was quieter, with warbles and recitative-like passages that echoed Bartók’s nighttime pieces; these were offset by chorale-like episodes with violins and viola moving slowly and chordally, over plucked cello, ceremonious and effective. The breathlike ending, with a high G harmonic in the cello over a low C sharp in the viola, was notably serene.

I was especially eager to hear this concert because, tied up with a bad cold myself, I had to miss Collage New Music’s opening concert of a week earlier, in the same hall, that honored David Rakowski (b. 1958), who holds the Walter W. Naumburg professorship at Brandeis, and this week’s concert offered the premiere of his first effort in the string quartet genre. It bears a whimsical subtitle from a poem by Robyn Schiff: “And Antigone Needed to Do Something With Her Hands And She Did It.” (The Antigone connection eluded me, unless she were dutifully burying Polynices with her own hands.) The first movement, Spaziosa [sic] assai, was a witty exercise in fast repeated notes (triplet eighths where Fine had quadruplet sixteenths) that gave way to a unison texture of violin II, viola and cello accompanying a violin I declamation, and short episodes of bounced spiccato bowing. The second movement, Sostenuto, brought out prominent octaves, with string harmonics, which reminded me of what Ravel does with octaves in his own Quartet and Rapsodie espagnole. There were some long sostenuto tones here, but more in the third movement, Vilamente (unknown to my dictionary, unless it means “cowardly”), expansive in its display of rapid unison textures à 4, jagged rhythms, and general joyful bounciness. Near the end a jazz pizzicato beat appears in the cello, accompanying a long, expressive viola line, soon vanishing in a spectral twitch with recognizable harmony.

Irving Fine’s quartet was a tough nut to crack, but I’d happily hear it again; and even more so do I look forward to hearing David Rakowski’s newer and more tonally translucent quartet that complements it so effectively. This amputated concert program amounted to a well-heard and thoughtful but not at all ponderous evening, and the performances were outstanding.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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