IN: Reviews

Did We Need the Science Lesson?


We the sonic pilgrims progressed from chaotic beginnings through to Beethoven’s big-bang-apotheosis. The programmatic fit of the wheels within wheels meshed so perfectly that an encore would have violated the gravitational coherence of Friday night’s well-aligned mini-solar system. Rather we would have expected Takács Quartet to have re-orbited its entire Celebrity Series program at Jordan Hall last night in response to the lusty cheers at the end.

This review proceeds von das innerer Klang outward in both directions. Surely prizewinning composer/violist/theology student/science manque Nokuthula Ngwenyama was thinking of Haydn’s depiction of chaos and creation when she wrote her Flow…I certainly was, not only when I heard the foursome advance Haydn’s Sunrise, but also when Ngwenyama’s new work began midway through the concert, helped in its saving of the universe by Anne Dresbach’s color morphing wall washers which bathed Jordan Hall’s gilt and warm wood in a glow visually equivalent to the elegant and refined sonorities.

Despite the interpolations of some extended techniques, one could appreciate Flow as warmly melodic post romanticism by a composer who has deep respect for the string quartet genre but wants to season it with piquant glints of modernism. The smooth advocacy of the performance suggested a mutual appreciation. Violist Richard O’Neill turned out frequently for what amounted to arias, giving forth great artistry to his important part. And the other three members of the quartet, violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, and cellist András Fejér, also invariably produced sumptuous tones and textual uniformity… almost to a fault. But, not surprisingly, Beethoven would ignite Friday evening’s biggest bangs.

Enthusiasts who want to digest details such as “H (Hydrogen – represented by the note B) and He (Helium – represented by notes BE)” can dig into Ngwenyama’s illuminated manifesto HERE. The less curious can read the paragraph from the handout:

We, as biological creatures, flow through life. Conversely, the flow of existence is temporarily housed in all living creatures each generation. Everything in nature flows and develops through time.  Individual consciousness is a small part of all collectively lived experience.  When the Takács Quartet asked me to write them a piece about the natural world, I researched seasonal starling murmurations, black hole collisions, protein music (converting protein sequences or genes to musical notes), Sars-Covid-2 Omicron and “Kraken” variants, peat fields as nature’s gift to carbon reclamation, and Madagascar lemur song and rhythms.

Some score samples are reprinted at the bottom. [see BMInt interview with Ngwenyama and Rhodes HERE]

In the opener, Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76 No. 2, Sunrise, the foursome embraced the composer’s geniality and wit with lofty interpretative sophistication, wrapping the four movements in gorgeously packaged gift boxes of perfected ensemble and well-blended beauty of tone. I’ve never heard the nearly 50-year-old ensemble in better form or gleaming with more formidable polish or well-directed power.

The Allegro con spirito conveyed the spirit of enlightenment. Elegance never gave way in speed, and seamless exchanges among the players added deep incisiveness to string quartet business as usual. After having heard them in small, dry halls in recent years, it pleased me greatly to experience the bloom of their patient, yearning sound in this exquisitely illuminating room. What bella-profundity they delivered in the Adagio—sweetness with the deepest savor, steadiness, and knowing incisiveness with passing tones. The call and answer Menuetto featured perfect hesitations but also digging-in for gold in hurdy-gurdy moments. The finale came to us as a playful congress of operatic characters. The nostalgic middle section yielded to intimations of joy. The fast, teasingly fractalated finish brilliantly accelerated to impossible velocity without mishap.

Could anything have satisfied us more than the celebrity visitors’ polished and exciting take on Beethoven’s Second Razumovsky? If it began with a sweetness that smoothed the expected angularity, that turned out to be part of the plan for a concert that built in power from beginning to end. The Takács put forth achingly cosmic spirituality in the Molto adagio. We experienced some revelations in the artful placement of slurs, masterfully uniform breathing in the sfzs, passion in the senza vibrato cries, and joy in juggernauts. We did think of the Sunrise and Flow, as did annotator Andrew McIntyre:

Beethoven indicated that the second movement, with its hymnlike opening, be played con molto di sentimento (with much feeling). Like Ngwenyama, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, Beethoven also found inspiration in the vastness of the cosmos. According to his student Carl Czerny, the second movement came to Beethoven as he observed the night sky and contemplated the movements of celestial bodies. Some believed that inaudible sound waves generated by these movements, the so-called “music of the spheres,” influenced thought and emotion. Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer and polymath, wrote that “man, the imitator of the Creator,” sought to emulate this “music” in composition.

A rich impasto of anticipation layered on with intense pigmentations characterized the Allegretto. The viola’s juicy statement of the Russian theme came in the midst of delightful skitter and sway. The fugal celebration skittered by with lively joy and repeated with ever more ornament. In the Finale, something of a triumphal march, the intricacies of the moving parts melded to perfection. Perorating with the accelerator down and synchromesh engaged…the group had built an entire program for this moment. And the crowd certainly recognized it.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Ed Note: At the request of the publicist we removed the (probably fairly used) score examples. Our captions remain.

  • In the Epoch of Reionization, “B = H for Hydrogen and BE = Helium.” Why the German usage?
  • The score tells us that 2H = 2 protons + 1 neutron. In my chemistry class 2H did not include a second proton.
  • What does it mean to indicate “pizz.” over three bars of a held note?
  • “Enjoy and go___with the flow” was aligned to notes in the score. It was neither sung nor spoken as far as we could tell, but we did enjoy the Flow.
  • And in answer to the question posed by the review title, Flow spoke very nicely for itself.



2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. “Fractalated” and “Impasto”: these are two unusual words for a concert review. Thank you, Mr. Eiseman, for the surprise and a significant piece of writing.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — February 19, 2024 at 10:04 am

  2. “Impasto” is a good word. “Fractalated” seems to have been newly coined for use in this review. I am flattered that we are considered worthy of this offering, but I really think it rightly belongs to Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s program notes, which are short on neologisms. It doesn’t do much in the review.

    I wish we had not been blessed with Ngwenyama’s essay on the thoughts underlying her work, which I liked very much. This is not specific to her. Whenever the BSO is giving a premiere, and the composer comes out on stage to say a few words, I shudder, and wish I could go deaf for a few minutes. No good ever comes of artists explaining their work. If the explanation is adequate, then the work isn’t necessary. If the intention is realized, that is sufficient; a description of what the artist was trying to do can only diminish it.

    Comment by SamW — February 20, 2024 at 4:41 pm

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