By Cy Ashley Webb
Presenting a program that spans 250 years and moves fluidly from Mozart to a 1924 Rebecca Clarke work, the Ives Quartet cannot be easily pegged, except perhaps by their very nimbleness. This nimbleness was clearly at work when a last minute change in the ordering of the program changed how the audience felt at the end of intermission. By ending the first half with Mozart, instead of the more ambiguous Clark, the Quartet changed the experience of the concert, leaving the audience on terra firma.
I’m getting ahead of myself here, however. Friday’s performance opened with two separate pieces by Rebecca Clarke, a violist and composer primarily active in the first three decades of the last century. Both of these pieces highlighted the considerable talents of violist Jodi Levitz. I was unfamiliar with Clarke – and subsequent forays out to iTunes were surprising as they revealed almost 100 entries – albeit none for theComodo et amabile (1924) that opened this performance. Although theComodo began with gentle wandering tones suggestive of Debussy, the music became increasing agitated, unified more by the pizzicato notes on Harrison’s cello and recurrent motives rather than any melody line. This music deserves a serious listen, which why I was disheartened that this particular piece was missing from iTunes because I’d love to hear it again as I’m sure I missed much of the complexity the work. The second piece,Adagio, was similar in tone to the first. Program notes likened this work to that of Bloch. Harrison’s cello drone halfway through was wonderfully startling.
Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, K 458, dubbed the “Hunt” followed. The brilliantly articulated trill, tossed back and forth between the players, made the first movement just plain fun as it wound itself way between the trill and a second melody line. Unlike the Clarke pieces, which were tended toward vertical organization, this was more accessible. This playful snippet burst forth again in the fourth Allegro assai movement, which offered up a new degree of complexity. So much is happening here that one marvels because the string quartet was a relatively new phenomena when this was written. It was a wonder how the quartet could possibly sustain the energy and joy that went into this piece. The audience was energized and awestruck when this piece drew to a rollicking conclusion.
A brief intermission was followed by Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major (1903). Detailed program notes helped audience members make sense of the sonata form of the first and fourth movements. More than anything, I was struck by what a privilege it is to hear this music live. I struggled to follow each musician separately, but they sounded so good together, this was quite impossible. The first movement came to an exquisitely gentle end. With a rapid pizzicato attack by all four players, the second movement got off to a startling beginning. With hint of Spanish tunes, interspersed with chromatic passages from Freier and Mussumeli, I never knew a string quartet could possibly sound this way. The fourth movement began frenetically, only to dissipate, and build to an astonishing end.
Once again I’m struck by how very fortunate we are to have the Ives Quartet at the south end of the Peninsula. With a magic all their own, this quartet plays with a precision, cleanness and élan that we often reserve for well established groups. They may just be the best-kept secret on the South Bay classical scene.
By Cy Ashley Webb
The last time I spoke to Susan Freier of the Ives Quartet, she began to explain how bowing techniques differ for baroque music. This began a thread that followed me through my recent review of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and continued as I read John Marchese’s gem of a book, The Violin Maker. Not being a string player, I’m always open to learning about anything that helps me listen more critically, and conversations with Freier opened a small window into that process.
This conversation reached full throttle during the first salon of the Ives Quartet season last Sunday during which Bettina Mussumeli, Jodi Levitz, Stephen Harrison and Susan Freier spoke at length about Haydn’s Opus 50. Rather than deconstruct the composition, members of the quartet addressed differences in how this piece was played twenty years ago vs how it is played today. When Stephen Harrison opened the conversation noting that twenty years ago, sustain was king, and students were urged to play with a continuous vibrato like Jascha Heifetz, I positively began to quiver because I’d just been listening to Joshua Bell comment on what you do when you stop playing vibrato.
Most people recognize vibrato when they hear it. The term is used to describe pulsating variation in pitch when playing or singing. A deep throaty opera singer usually employs vibrato while singing, as do most string instruments. It’s so easy to confuse vibrato with tremulo (pulsating changes in volume) that the terms are often used interchangeably. The reason for this confusion became apparent as Harrison pointed out that twenty years ago, the message was to play LOUD. However, when string players boost their volume by playing vibrato, they are not necessarily playing the way the music was originally envisioned.
Volume and vibrato become an issue for musicians because conditions today are far more demanding than when this music was originally written. Freier noted that when the quartet is on tour in Europe, they tend to play small venues with lots of marble that reflect the sounds, rather than large heavily carpeted and curtained venues that just eat up them up. The acoustics of these venues are more consistent with what this music was written for.
If playing vibrato is not an authentic option for today’s performers, the question arises what a musician is to do when faced with the need for volume. Mussumeli provided a partial answer to this as she distinguished between old instruments with modern setups and modern instruments with old setups. By changing strings from gut to titanium, allowing more pressure at the bridge and varying the fingerboard, one ultimately arrives at a more authentic (albeit less resonant) sound in a modern venue. Mussumeli’s observations reminded me of Sam Zygumtowicz’s line in The Violin Maker. Commenting on instruments made by Stradivarius and Guarneri, he says “It’s like those old American cars in Cuba that were there before Castro, and are still running. They’re classic Chevy’s or Fords, but chances are that most of the parts are different.” It’s only through what Mussumeli termed a “modern set up” that we use these instruments today. She continued her discussion by presenting variations in the evolution of the bow. I confess, I got lost here as Mussulemi presented so many bows in rapid succession that I was unable to follow her completely.
In addition to technique and instrumentation, Jodi Levitz pointed out that notation also stands in our way of getting at a truly authentic performance. My ears perked up here, because I’d recently listened to composer Erik Ulman explain that not every note was written down in baroque music as originally published. In many instances, the sheet music we’ve grown up with is an educated person’s best guess and can be easily trumped by subsequent scholarship. As Levitz noted, we’re textualists – and what is written becomes what is true. When one of the musicians explained that most sheet music contains suggestions for ornamentation, my mind flashed to the first five pages of Bach’s Selections from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook languishing on my piano – pages that detail suggested ornaments and when they can be omitted. Much to the delight of the audience, the group played the identical piece with different ornaments.
The Ives Quartet will be presenting a second Salon in April. If the excellent discussion that took place Sunday is any indication, this second Salon should be equally inspiring.
In the early 1970s, Rudhyar moved from Southern to Northern California. Charles Amirkhanian (above) was Music Director of KPFA-FM in Berkeley from 1969-1992, presiding over a golden age of local public radio, and in the early 1970s he devoted a number of broadcasts to Rudhyar’s music and interviews with the composer. (You can listen to highlights at the RadiOM website by clicking here.) Listening to Rudhyar and Amirkhanian in a 1972 interview is a treat, especially hearing evidence that Rudhyar had left everything behind in the Old World except a thick French accent. It’s also fascinating listening to a young Amirkhanian, whose entire life has been devoted to being a “seed-man” in the world of music. Not long after these interviews, Rudhyar embarked on another spurt of composing for the last ten years of his life, this time accompanied by grants, performances, and honors.
For the 25th anniversary of Rudhyar’s death, Amirkhanian’s Other Minds Music organization produced a concert of Rudhyar’s music from both the 1920s and the 1970s in the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco last Monday.
The small church turned out to be jammed to the gills for the performance, so I turned in my press ticket and promised to make it down the Peninsula on Wednesday evening for an encore performance in the Palo Alto suburb of Portola Valley.
Rudhyar’s music from the 1920s and 1970s sounds remarkably similar, an attractively difficult mix of dissonance and beauty, with Scriabin as a model but sounding more like Charles Ives and Henry Cowell.
It also looks fiendishly difficult to play, particularly in its complicated counting. I asked Sarah Cahill if there were any special difficulties, and she replied in an email:
“Sometimes he writes about how he wants to convey the rhythms of non-verbal speech through music, so he never gives you a steady beat, but instead the music is always fluctuating and evolving through the kind of irregular rhythms we use in speech. For instance, in “Granites,” if you look at the first page of the score, you’ll notice there’s no time signature. You’ll also notice that he has measures with “3” over large brackets, entire phrases (meaning it’s one huge triplet), and then sixteenth-note triplets within that and also groups of two and four sixteenth notes. That’s difficult to play if you’re counting precisely. But I don’t think Rudhyar is like Elliott Carter, a composer who really demands a strict internal metronome. Both Leyla [his widow] and Deniz [an academic who’s just written a biography], who guided me a bit in these performances, stressed that you have to feel it even more than counting strictly. But then, that “feeling” brings up another challenge: you’ll see in the program notes for Transmutation that Rudhyar has a real plan for that set of seven pieces, and there has to be a real psychic transformation through the entire sequence. That is probably even more of a challenge than Rudhyar’s rhythmic writing.”
Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley was spacious and fairly empty after the sold-out Swedenborgian performance, and the lighting of the trees behind the glass-backed altar by Allen Wilner was superb.
So were all the performers, including Julie Steinberg, piano and David Abel, violin who played the opening “Poem for Violin and Piano” from 1920.
Sarah Cahill played the 1976 “Transmutation, tone sequence in seven moments” which had premiered in nearby Palo Alto. After intermission, she returned to the 1920s with “Stars from Pentagram No. 3” and “Granites.” She seems to understand this kind of music as well as anyone in the world, and they were wonderful performances (click here for a Kosman review at SFGate confirming the impression).
The finale was his Second String Quartet from 1979 which was commissioned by the recently deceased Betty Freeman. The Ives Quartet gave a great performance.
By Joshua Kosman
The world of 20th century music is replete with hidden treasures, and the Other Minds Festival unearthed one on Monday night with a splendid concert devoted to the music of the little-known modernist composer Dane Rudhyar.
Rudhyar was born in Paris in 1895, came to the United States at 21, and died in San Francisco in 1985 at age 90. In addition to his music, which is both craggy and intoxicating, he devoted himself to painting, literature and an obfuscating mix of spiritualism and astrology.
The music on Monday’s program at the Swedenborgian Church in Pacific Heights was drawn from both of Rudhyar’s periods of composition – the 1920s, when he blended the influences of Debussy and Scriabin with an acerbic and distinctively American tone, and the 1970s, when he returned to music after several decades away from it.
Both groups revealed a creative voice at once pungent and inviting, muscular and unpredictable. Two short piano pieces from the 1920s, “Stars” from “Pentagram No. 3” and “Granites,” found beauty in wiry dissonance and a rhapsodic surface; both of them sounded lean and incisive in a magnificent rendition by pianist Sarah Cahill. The first of three “Poems for Violin and Piano,” from 1920 – similarly willful and arresting – began the evening in a forthright performance by violinist David Abel and pianist Julie Steinberg.
When Rudhyar took up composition again in the 1970s, his stylistic palette had expanded to include strains of popular music and more overt invocations of late Romanticism alongside the dissonant modernism of Carl Ruggles and Henry Cowell.
The evening’s high point was Cahill’s gorgeous and rhetorically subtle rendition of “Transmutation,” a suite of seven piano movements that touch on a wide range of stylistic bases – from cocktail-lounge music to Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata. Some of the pieces are oddly seductive, others pugnacious and brusque, yet all of them feel deeply connected despite their superficial dissimilarities.
Something similar is at work in “Crisis and Overcoming,” a four-movement string quartet written in 1979 for the Kronos Quartet. Here Rudhyar writes instrumental conversations that sound fugal without actually repeating, and he closes with a little double homage to Ravel and Gershwin. The Ives Quartet (violinists Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violist Jodi Levitz and cellist Stephen Harrison) played it wonderfully.
By Cy Ashley Webb
String quartets are great to drive to, great to clean the house to, great to groom the dog to. There’ve even better deliciously wafting up to the second floor of the Isabelle Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston when you’re wandering around looking at artwork. However, most are not the best to actually sit down and listen to.
The Ives Quartet is different. In a world of many darn good string quartets, there aren’t many that play with their passion and intensity. Composed of two violins (Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier), a viola (Jodi Levitz) and a cello (Stephen Harrison), the Ives Quartet puts this music back on the map. This is not your mother’s string quartet playing lovely, lyrical, forgettable period music. This music engages the brain and soul and leaves you in a very different place than when you walked in the room.
One of thing things I really appreciated was the effort that individual members made to actually explain the music before they played it. The group opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, No. 1. This marks the beginning of a venture in which the group will play all of the works in this series. Jodi Levitz’s remarks about this being a “very Haydn” piece and her anecdotal material about Haydn publishing this with three different publishers warmed the audience to a lovely, lovely piece. This was immediately followed by Dane Rudhyar’s String Quartet No. 2, Crisis and Overcoming.
The Rudhyar piece was an ambitious undertaking. I’d read a fair amount of Rudhyar – and was painfully familiar with his dense, overwrought style that forced the reader to go through 20 pages before coming to yet another Rudhyar gem of insight. I was stunned to learn he was a musician – and even more stunned to learn he’d lived in Palo Alto. I’m grateful to the Ives Quartet for taking on this work. Before picking up his bow, Stephen Harrison let the audience know that while one of Rudhyar’s aims was to avoid the very intellectual approach of Schoenberg, this piece sounded very much like Schoenberg. Harrison’s analysis was spot on. Indeed, I found this piece, not unlike much of Rudhyar’s writing – aimless wandering, except for the bits that make you sit up. Like much of Rudhyar’s writing, I wish this piece could have been condensed to something substantially shorter. This is not a criticism of the Ives quarter or their choice of this music. I came away there knowing more about Rudhyar than I did coming in – and have a whole new appreciation for his influence on John Cage and Lou Harrison. This alone would have been worth the price of admission.
If the first half of the concert fed one’s mind, the second half went straight to the spirit. Pianist Gwendolyn Mok joined the group for Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44. Whereas the first Haydn piece left no doubt as to the virtuosity of this group, this piece left no doubt as to their intensity. Playing in equal measure, neither the group nor Ms. Mok dominated the work. Engaging the audience, the this piece held the audience’s attention in a rare laser-like focus. Leaving Le Petit Trianon, all I could think of was the name of one of the groups’ concerts in a previous year – “plays well together.” Indeed, they do.
The Ives Quartet will be returning in November for a fall salon, and again in February at locations in Palo Alto and San Jose. They are worth checking out – especially if you want your mind changed about how dynamic string quartets can be.
By Paul Hertelendy
BURLINGAME, CA—Stranded back east with weather and flight-cancellation problems, San Francisco composer Dan Becker missed a local performance of his “Time Rising” for string quartet, performed on pi-Day (March 14) before a sold-out house of the Music at Kohl chamber series.
His 18-minute collage “Time Rising” (2009) is both clever and appealing. The first movements present three different ingredients feeding into the whole, presented integrally in the fourth movement, much longer than the other three combined. The inspiration was unique: Becker got the idea for the format baking bread. Ingredients whetted my appetite: First, long-held chords and gentle soft sonorities—think Arvo Pärt. Then a minimalist chattering section, with the musicians tapping feet to keep track of the clickety-clacky vehicle careening at Toyota speeds. Finally, modal melodies.
All this blended beautifully into the finale’s energy-charged resolution reflecting some influence of John Adams’ polyrhythmic style. This was incisive, even abrasive, and a mite combative. What emerged was dramatical-theatrical in the various perusals and overlays. A lot of the leadership went to the violist, in this case an animated Jodi Levitz, whose strong personality was nicely fleshed out.
Becker used another unorthodox creative method, parceling out small fragments of three measures or less and leaving them with the Ives Quartet for assimilation/digestion (and also leaving the musicians in total bewilderment). Only after the full “loaf” was served could the musicians grasp the sense of it all.
The Ives (string) Quartet is a S.F. Peninsula institution, two of its members stemming from the founding in 1983. It was absolutely inspired engaging a fifth, Jerome Simas, for the late Brahms Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115; one felt that Simas could make even a laundry list sing with his wind instrument. The crux of it was his rich vibrato illuminating the Adagio movement. The same wondrous segment at its midpoint has the clarinet going off in a distinctly klezmer mode, with considerable metric freedom, quite different from the Hungarian and gypsy influences for which Brahms is noted. The impulsive runs and decorative connecting tissue all suggested that more distant style developed and maintained in European Jewish communities.
Overall, Brahms’ clarinet pieces, like his viola sonatas, have been termed “autumnal,” mostly displaying the mellow lower registers.
Simas’ play made an effective contrast against the Ives foursome, the latter playing with an intensity that leans and leads toward grainy sound textures. But the Ives shows strength at the top and bottom via violinist Bettina Mussumeli and cellist Stephen Harrison. And much to her credit, second violinist Susan Freier blends closely with Mussumeli.
The Ives Quartet led off with Mozart’s popular “Hunt” Quartet, K. 458, where all four voices came effectively into play.
The Music at Kohl series uses the historic Kohl Mansion, built in 1916, notable for the high-ceilinged banquet hall (now concert hall) stylistically suggesting that it may have been designed with King Henry VIII and his Tudor court in mind. Despite the unhappy personal history of builder-founder Frederick Kohl, the mansion is now a welcoming Peninsula environment for concerts, wedding receptions, and Mercy High School classes. And its concerts are decidedly up-close; sit in the front row, and you feel you should be reaching over to turn pages for the musicians.
Music at Kohl, Kohl Mansion, Burlingame, with varied chamber concerts. For info: (650) 762-1130.
By Beeri Moalem
One of my favorite composition teachers once said, “Any buffoon can get a premiere. A real achievement is a repeat performance.”
Last May, I reviewed the Ives Quartet’s premiere of Dan Becker’s workTime Rising. At the time, I was intrigued by its unusual macro structure: three tiny movements — or “ingredients” — followed by a much longer movement: the final product. Hearing the Ives play the work again on Sunday, I knew what to expect, and this time I was struck by its rhythmic complexity and the slowly moving harmony — each first presented as ingredients, then folded into the final piece.
Violist Jodi Levitz explained, in Becker’s absence, that the composer initially thought of the piece as a metaphor for baking bread, so he gave the ingredients titles such as “flower,” “water,” and “yeast.” But after the fact, he opted instead to give them typical cheesy titles for minimalist music: titles such as “sky,” “wind,” and “wing,” with the final product being called “Fly.” (The capitalization patterns are the composer’s.) Only the piece’s overall title retains the original idea in the word “Rising,” as in rising dough.
Too often these days, classical music audiences are exposed to new pieces only once. Given the complexity of much of today’s music, that’s truly a shame. To fully appreciate a piece of music, a listener usually must undertake a long relationship with it; sometimes the relationship lasts a lifetime. This is why I was delighted to be assigned to review Time Rising a second time.
Becker’s music is relatively accessible, to begin with, but there’s still a wealth of complexity to indulge the ear, the brain, and the heart. Rhythms churn against each like complex engines. Levitz drew a metaphor of trains going in opposite directions, or spinning spokes on a wheel. The mechanical element is definitely present in the piece, but there’s also a biological stirring, like the pulse of blood or the activity in a beehive.
The complex rhythms that together create this bustling texture are difficult to execute by humans. The Quartet counts in threes, fours, fives, and whatnot, coalescing together on common multiples of the beats. (In the case of 3, 4, and 5, this would be every 60th beat, or: 4×15, 3×20, and 5×12.)
In a postconcert reception, Ives’ first violinist, Bettina Mussumeli, explained that the Quartet has already performed this piece at least six times. While it has gotten easier, she says, everyone still has to count like mad. “It’s really difficult for concentration,” she said. “When it clicks, I wonder why I ever thought it was hard. But if you stop counting, it’s impossible to get back on.”
Indeed, second violinist Susan Freier was visibly counting as if her life depended on it, grounding the ensemble with a rock-solid pulse.
Sometimes the melodic lines are only a 16th apart, which makes it easy to coalesce and play together. To paraphrase Mussumeli: “Suddenly we’re perfectly together … yet when we do have to play together, it’s much tougher.” A funny paradox, that.
Time Rising was straddled by two standard-repertoire masterpieces of contrasting moods: Mozart’s “The Hunt” Quartet in B-flat Major, one of the brightest, most enjoyable pieces in the literature; and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, a sad, introspective work. Most chamber music lovers have heard these pieces many more than two times and have a lengthy relationship with them.
The Mozart was tackled head-on as the outdoorsy, brassy piece that it is — perfect for the first springlike day of the year. Mussumeli’s crisply articulated anacrusis to the piece opened the concert with energetic confidence. Mozart is often handled with precious silk gloves, but the Ives Quartet held nothing back in its interpretation. The energy would sometimes slip into intonation or ensemble errors, but nothing that a little extra rehearsal won’t patch.
Cellist Stephen Harrison was playing a newly acquired 100-year-old Italian instrument, which sounded fabulous. Having heard the Ives Quartet at least five times now, I definitely noticed an improvement in the cello tone. A highlight came in the second movement, in one of those dear moments when Mozart dispenses with complex counterpoint and features a melody with a straightforward accompanimental pattern. These sections spotlight the melody, usually in the violin. When the cello receives the melody, however, the instance is that much more special. Harrison and his new cello shone through.
Although the Brahms is a heavy, often gloomy work, it somehow leaves the listener with a sense of contentment, like the peace of old age. Guest clarinetist Jerome Simas blended remarkably well (almost too well) with the strings. Somehow, the clarinet’s usually piercing tone sounded lost among the strings, though it emerged once in a while to make a melodic statement.
The concert was presented by Music at Kohl Mansion, in Burlingame, a terrific organization that regularly packs a sold-out crowd in front of its gorgeous, Gothic-style mantelpiece. Yet in the fireplace, instead of fire, burns the passionate flame of music.
By Beeri Moalem
Since its inception in 1991, the San Jose Chamber Orchestra (SJCO) has commissioned or premiered 75 new works. In an art form where only about six percent of the repertoire performed is contemporary (according to the League of American Symphony Orchestras’ annual report) this is quite an achievement in a genre obsessed with dead white men, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Music Director Barbra Day Turner points out that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. “Historically, only contemporary works were performed.” Yet today, contemporary works are usually featured only when flanked by security war horses (i.e. as Brahms and Beethoven for the millionth time) that will keep the audience from fleeing the concert hall in case of modern music.
But Turner insists that “If new music is never played, music as a living art will die out.” How does an art-form expect to survive if it is fixated with the past and afraid of the present? The San Jose Chamber Orchestra, however, is not afraid to face the unknown. Every single concert in this year’s season features several works by living composers.
For their upcoming March 8th concert, the orchestra premieres Hyo-Shin Na’s Not the Object Alone, a composition for string quartet and string orchestra. Concertos usually feature one or two soloists, but when four are featured, a different set of challenges arise. There is a history to this genre, however: Arnold Schoenberg wrote a concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra 1933, Louis Spohr wrote one in 1845 (Op. 131 No. 1), Francesco Gemininani composed several in the 1730’s, as did a few others others. All present different solutions to the issues of such a piece’s balance, leadership roles, and instrumenteation but for whatever reason, the genre never really caught on to the standard repertoire.
With Sunday’s concert, SJSO marks the first in an annual series of concerts featuring an established string quartet and the orchestra. The projects starts with the Ives Quartet (Next season’s collaboration is with the Cypress Quartet, and a new work by Pablo Furman) who will perform an all-time favorite, Dvo?ák’s “American” quartet along with Ms. Na’s premiere. Turner calls the new work “breathtaking” and explains that it is about how “textural tapestry evokeing the interplay of object and shadow.”
In addition, the orchestra will perform two additional modern pieces: Lyric for Strings by George Walker (first African American composer to win Pulitzer Prize) and Rounds by David Diamond.
Turner admits “New works take more personal practice, more rehearsal time, more money, and it can be hard to promote the unknown.” These ads are common excuses for avoiding modern challenges, and it is great to see them tackled head-on. “Plus,” Turner adds, “it interests me.” Not exactly what you would expect from an expert on the harpsichord.
Despite, or as a result of, taking the tougher approach, the orchestra has been successful– even in “this economy,” SJCO is expanding its season. Why drive all the way to San Francisco for new music, braving traffic, crazies, and fog? We have great opportunities to hear exciting, interesting new music right here in the South Bay!
Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony veered, musically speaking, from Aretha Franklin to Yo-Yo Ma. Many American voices were heard — including the music of the president’s own oration.
What good timing, then, for the Ives Quartet’s new program, “With an American Voice.” It explores the “voices” of several American composers and premieres a song cycle based on texts by and about Abraham Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago on Feb. 12 — and whose words, ideals and political style inspire the 44th president.
Friday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, the Ives, an exceptional group from the Bay Area, began with a composer whose voice mostly has been forgotten. Quincy Porter was a New Englander, born in 1897. He taught at Yale and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.
The Ives (named for another New Englander, composer Charles Ives) has been trying to draw this faded star back into the firmament. It has unearthed some of Porter’s works from the Yale Library and is recording his nine string quartets for the Naxos label.
Friday’s program (which repeats Feb. 22 in San Francisco) focused on Porter’s early opuses. “In Monasterio” recalled Renaissance chant, simple, open and innocently reverent. A setting of a Ukrainian song, showing off the Ives’ lush sound, preceded a “Scherzo” in which Porter began arriving at his mature style, with sharp-elbowed rhythms and tart, stacked harmonies. One could hear the emergence of a voice.
Joseph Gregorio, born in 1979, is definitely an emerging voice.
His “The Fullness of Peace,” the Lincoln-inspired song cycle, touches on musical theater, matching rhythms of language to song in the smart manner of Stephen Sondheim or Adam Guettel. Gregorio’s texts are often amplified by just the right glimmering harmony in the strings, or a bit of vocal melisma, stretching a syllable, or a recurring melodic motif to underline, say, Lincoln’s pleas for unity.
Raised in Gettysburg, Pa., Gregorio has Lincoln-esque roots. The piece, in seven movements and lasting 40-plus minutes, sets one of Lincoln’s favorite fables from Aesop and several letters, one written to his wife when he was a congressman, another by a girl advising Lincoln to grow a beard. There are words penned by Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and Julie Gregorio, the composer’s sister, who selected the texts.
Initially, the piece glows with charm and awe. But it needs editing. Vocal lines, ably sung by baritone Austin Kness, have a sameness as the piece grows too earnestly “American” in its goodness, its Copland-y reflection of Lincoln’s rural roots and humility. One can imagine Gregorio composing the piece during the Obama campaign, feeling the weight of the historical moment; ultimately, one feels the weight too much.
The program ended with Dvorak’s “American” Quartet (String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96), which the Czech composed in 1893 while summering in Iowa. In a way, this was the night’s most authentically “American” piece.
It exults in African-American spirituals and still exudes a pioneer spirit, as well as a dancing Bohemian energy. The Ives — violinists Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violist Jodi Levitz and cellist Stephen Harrison — played it with passionate, almost raucous, zeal.
Contact Richard Scheinin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5069.
By Dan Leeson
The second of four programs designed to celebrate the 10th anniversary season of the Ives Quartet had, as its theme, “With an American Voice.” Terrific idea. Imaginative programming! The players, Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violins, Jodi Levitz, viola, and Stephen Harrison, cello, are a unified force that shows some brilliant playing. While the program, presented at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, with two more performances to come, had a number of delightful moments, there were problems with the evening’s major composition, the premiere of an Ives Quartet commission.
The opening work was a genuine rarity — a string quartet made from a collection of four short, apparently unrelated pieces composed by a youthful student, Quincy Porter, who later became a highly respected composer, violist, and teacher. He had studied at Yale with Horatio Parker, teacher of Charles Ives some 25 years earlier. Even as a young composer, Porter knew exactly how to write for strings. Eventually he would write some nine quartets (the exact number is uncertain) that are being revived today. Levitz, the quartet’s strong and energetic violist, only recently discovered the manuscripts of the program’s four works in an archive at Yale.
While these were student compositions, they nevertheless showed a remarkable grasp of Porter’s compositional skill, as well as an affinity for string works. The individual pieces were a “Prelude” (1923); “In Monasterio” (1927), which consisted of three minimovements, all in a medieval style; “Our Lady of Potchav” (1923), a Ukrainian folk song; and “Scherzo” (1923). The Ives Quartet has been recording Porter’s complete string quartets, including this concert’s featured quartet, which shows the genesis of his American style.
The evening’s second presentation, a premiere work by composer Joseph Gregorio, added the baritone voice of Austin Kness to the quartet in a composition titled The Fullness of Peace, a seven-section work honoring Abraham Lincoln. Four of the work’s seven sections presented the president’s words, while a fifth derived its text from the writings of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The sixth section, without singer, was a meditation on the Gettysburg Address and the horrors of war, while the seventh was a poem by the composer’s sister, Julie Gregorio, that summarized the theme of the first six sections.
A composition to honor Lincoln is a wonderful idea. There are few musical works in which we are reminded of his greatness, the most outstanding two accomplishments having been keeping the Union whole and the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait is the best-known such effort, but there is room for more.
The text, printed in the program, offered an opportunity for considerable excitement, but in practice difficulties arose. To begin, the singer’s diction was not clear. Part of the time, his voice was covered by the strings, while elsewhere it appeared that he failed to articulate the text with clarity. When, from time to time, the strings were silent, the sung words were clearer. And it is not that the Ives Quartet played too loudly, but rather that there existed some kind of a negative acoustical interaction between the strings and baritone Kness’ strong and extremely professional voice. But whatever the cause of the problem, the text, so necessary for this composition’s success, was not delivered accurately. An audience should not be required to read the printed text in order to understand what’s being sung. Instead, it’s the singer’s task to make the text crystal clear.
The composition itself had some positive moments, but it revealed two significant weaknesses. The first was its length, as could be seen by the number of nodding heads and restless movements from the audience. This failure can be corrected with a disciplined shortening of the work, particularly the fifth and seventh sections.
The second problem lay in the entirely monochromatic nature of the composition, with only one orchestral character presented. Even the charming letter to Lincoln from an 11-year-old girl, Grace Bedell, suggesting that he should let his whiskers grow, not only was almost entirely without charm and innocence, but also was presented in the same somber orchestral color as the other six sections. Gregorio must learn the lesson of varying the emotional character of a composition’s sections.
Gregorio is a skillful composer, as was shown in the seven sections of the compositions, but he appears not ready or willing to shorten what he writes and present the ideas in a variety of orchestral colors and emotions.
This composition is well worth salvaging. It has the essence of a strong work within it, but it needs Gregorio to shape the piece mercilessly to allow that essence to come forth.
The final work of the evening was the “American” String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, of Antonin Dvořák. Arriving in the U.S. to become the president of the new National Conservatory of Music, Dvořák tried to create a sense of national style through the assimilation of plantation songs, Indian music, and spirituals. The thematic material of this work is not convincingly American. Dvořák displayed brilliance in handling Czech and Hungarian folk songs, though his invented pseudo-American tunes have an awkward character.
The Quartet played the work beautifully; it’s a fine group. Yet the composition falls between the styles of European classical music and the quasi-Indian and spiritual melodies that Dvořák did his best to invent, or borrow, in order to achieve an American feeling.