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Takács Quartet To Debut Flow

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The renowned Takács Quartet has a zest for new music and unconventional partnerships. They’ve collaborated with bandoneon standout Julien Labro, composer and The National vocalist Bryce Dessner, vocalist Clarice Assad, and actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. For its February 16th Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall [tickets HERE], the foursome offers Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s Flow sandwiched between Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet and the second of Beethoven’s Razumovskys.

In Flow, Harvard Divinity School graduate Ngwenyama embraces the cosmos…or lets it embrace her. BMInt spoke with her and and Takács violinist Harumi Rhodes.

FLE: We first met in 1999 when you gave a super viola recital at Harvard Musical Association. You probably don’t remember the event, but surely the baked beans, Welsh rabbit and ale must have traumatized you.

Composer and Violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama. (Mark Morgan photo)

NN: I do remember the recital, and the flavor wasn’t bad. Nice to connect again here.

And I don’t know whether you were composing then because there was nothing of yours on the standard-rep program.

I was a closet composer and came out with my first professional commission in 2014.

And did you discard everything that you wrote before that?

No, no. I have things from high school and even elementary school that are saved. Thankfully my mother always encouraged me to save my work. My elementary school orchestra teacher, high school theory, composition and counterpoint teachers all encouraged me to compose, and I have those assignments saved as well.

But I just never thought of myself as a composer until I got my first professional commission. And then I thought, oh well, maybe others are interested in what I write.

So you studied theory and counterpoint just as part of a regular degree in music performance, not because you thought you were going to compose; those are courses that everybody in a conservatory takes.

Correct.

Does all of your music include the viola? And I can’t remember whether you’re a doubler or whether you only play viola.

I double. But does everything include the viola? No, I’ve written things that actually exclude the viola – that I transcribed later. For example, I wrote “Climbing to Dragon’s Mountain” for The Biltmore Violins, a group I started at my children’s elementary school, to teach them composition.

We gathered around the score, and I asked them, “What do you guys want to write? Something fast? Something slow?” The staff grew from a single violin to four parts written to the ability of the group before their very eyes. They loved seeing the notes go up on the page, getting handwritten parts, playing them and being part of the premiere. I am proud that the majority of the kids that started in that class have continued with music into high school.

Tell us more about what encouraged you to come out of the closet yourself as a composer? 

I received a request to write something for Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, the largest Black Church in Phoenix. They knew that I composed and arranged, but that I just didn’t feel necessarily compelled to write my own stuff.

Previously I would get an idea and just write it down without thinking about the next step. But I’ve always felt like I could compose. Sometimes I felt like I needed to compose to get it out; was a compulsion that did not necessarily need to be shared.

Did you consider writing a viola quintet for the Takács Quartet with yourself as second viola, and don’t you think all quartets should have two violas?

One of my first chamber music works is named Primal Message. It’s based on the Arecibo message sent in 1974 to M13 globular cluster 25,000 light years away. We’re awaiting a return message in about 50,000 years. It’s based on prime numbers in binary form that Carl Sagan and others who composed this message sent. Then David Shifrin, artistic director of the Phoenix Chamber Music Society Spring Festival and then artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest, commissioned me to write either a clarinet or viola quintet to premiere with the Dover Quartet. So, I just decided to write myself in. We premiered it, then I orchestrated it because I was hoping for time to record it with conductor Anthony Armore and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra after my Viola Concerto. But I didn’t have time to record it, as we worked on the concerto for the entire session.

The Detroit Symphony found out that I had this orchestral score (string orchestra, harp and percussion) and reached out to premiered it in 2020 with Maestro Xian Zhang. She connected with the piece and started touring with it, and that was how Primal Message took off as an orchestral piece. Since Detroit, it’s been played throughout the United States with some wonderful orchestras: LA Phil, Chicago, San Francisco. It was just played by New York Stream Orchestra Seminar at Carnegie Hall in December with Jamie Laredo conducting.

I arranged a string orchestra version as well, so that is actually getting played more in schools.

So Primal Message has legs as an orchestral piece, right now. Have you recorded it with the Dover?

We have a non-commercial recording produced by Chamber Music Northwest and Peace Mama Productions online on SoundCloud.

I’d like to hear from Harumi about how and how the Flow commission came about.

HR: As we started to learn our parts, Thula came out to Boulder Colorado where we live, and we workshopped the piece. It was incredibly exciting to be able to work with her in-person when the music was fresh off the page. It’s amazing to get a string quartet written by someone who both plays so beautifully and also understands what performing on stage is really like… not just how the individual instruments work. She ‘gets’ how the drama of being on stage works and the interaction and chemistry with the audience. One of the reasons Flow is so fun to play is because of the drama, spontaneity, and virtuosity we get to show on stage.  

We all know when we’re hearing musical water, but if I didn’t read the program or know of your scientific inspiration, would I be able to intuit it? The score has indications for “chaos” and assigns notes to Helium and Hydrogen.

HR: There’s so much to enjoy in the piece. It has a lot of contrasting sections and different kinds of styles. It starts out quite experimental, with extended techniques and with us making all sorts of non-traditional sounds – like playing on the other side of the bridge. We even get to make “cosmic microwave background” sounds by bowing the bout of our instruments. And then as the music unfolds, it becomes more questioning, more tonal, and with a great sense of humor – we feel like a certain king of human-playfulness develops, and the music really starts to sing and dance. The quartet also has a section where we can be very lush – like a huge orchestra. There is also a scherzo movement, which is more fragmented and more waltz-like, poking fun at different genres of music. Even if you didn’t read the program notes, there’s a tremendous amount to enjoy and so much positive energy that radiates from the music.

So Thula (pronounced TOO-lah), what, what should people who don’t want to read the manifesto take away? In other words, how about an executive summary?

NN: I hope the listener feels good after hearing the music, and that they have experienced an interesting journey with emotive power. We’re all connected. We’re the same stuff as 4.7 percent of matter in the known universe, making us the anomaly. We can value expression, we have awareness; I mean, how odd is that?

Is there a sense of arrival with the end?

NN: Yes. I think there’s a sense of acceptance that we are all caught in the flow that began with the initial energy outburst at the beginning of our universe.

You’re used to being an inner voice.

NN: Well, I actually love writing from the inside out, maybe like Dvořák, Beethoven, Mozart, and Berlioz. There’s something about the inner voice; it’s like the center game on a chess board. If you can control those little four squares in the center, you’ve got the whole thing and it’s the same with the inner voice. If the core is figured out everything can sonically blossom around it. And then, when we push the inner voices out to their own experience, things get interesting too. Or remove them completely.

And is there something about the sound of Takács that inspired you? And can you tell the sound of one quartet from another easily?

NN: Yes, and yes. There are many fabulous string quartets I enjoy. The Takács have such a beautiful sheen to their tone. And, it’s a sound that has space. It’s rounded and full without force. The four parts are distinct, yet they’re also blended and balanced so perfectly when they play. But at the same time, there’s so much flair. The Takács push the musical edge, and that is why it’s been exciting compose for them. They encouraged me to write something worthy of their musicianship.

HR: Thanks Thula. I feel like the program, as a whole and very much including Thula’s piece, is about the sense of adventure of using the string quartet as a vehicle for spontaneity, and adventure, and discovery.

Boston Celebrity Series Presents:

The Takács Quartet
Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violins
Richard O’Neill, viola; András Fejér, cello 

February 16th at 8:00 at Jordan Hall [tickets HERE]

 

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