Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Kicking it off

If this blog seems a little, well, unorganized, it's partly by design. My aim is to throw out my thoughts as I move through my grad school career, although I may save my more focused work for, well, school, and use this as a broader catch-all for whatever grabs my attention. If anything, it's good to get out and engage with the world outside.

So let's start with some musical experiences I've enjoyed lately. Probably the biggest of late is the Emerson Quartet performance I went to last Friday. The program was as follows:

Janacek's Quartet #2 "Intimite Letters"- I love the Janacek quartets, they're under-played in my opinion. This one is ripens quickly into lush lyrical phrases, but they always seem to sour before they finish. The movements all share these lucid textures that give off that crystalline sunny feeling, something like the air at dawn. But there's always a darkness lurking underneath, and it isn't long that the fluid melodies start to sour into more dissonant, muddied textures. The magic is in the renewal and balance between these two, but the whole work thrives off that with a sort of vibrant energy.

Saariaho's Terra Memoria- This new work enters imperceptibly, like a great craggy and icy coast that slowly emerges out of a gray, thick fog. But once it's there, it's solidly in place (until it eerily recedes again). The writing is densely packed, highly dissonant, and full of reaching semitonal gestures that never quite hold onto whatever they're clutching at. At times the music converges into unison writing, and it's these moments that are surprisingly gripping, charged with a sharp explosiveness rather than whatever stability you might think these moments have. As I said, the texture is unforgivingly rocky, but there's a lot of variation and fierceness to the individual points in the landscape.

Sheng's commission Quartet #5- This was the least successful of the pieces I thought. There are fragile moments of pure beauty when the quartet seems to dissolve in languid folk melodies in a sort of pastoral sense. But the rest of the time is filled with, well, filler--ostinatos, runs, and rather pat little rhythmic gestures that sink too quickly into patterns. It's a lot of noodling, which makes the melodic segments feel rather out of place, but certainly more welcome.

Bartok's Quartet #3- Undoubtedly they play this more than the others, and it shows. Very solid, with the most richly complex palette of sounds. Everything in this felt perfectly solid, but not immobile. Clean, brisk motions with that delicate blend of crunchy dissonances and lyrical melodies. It also feels the most structured of all the quartets here. As I said, solid.

The Quartet wasn't as polished as I had imagined, except in the Bartok, which I assume is due to their familiarity with it. But it wasn't exactly a negative quality, rather the roughness gave voice to the more dissonant elements of the Janacek, and injected a certain edgy energy to the music. For an encore, they switched it up, playing the fourth movement of Webern's op. 5, in an fiercely focused performance. The piece was quiet, introspective, and delicately structured between the four instruments, and they carried it off with effortless accuity. Additionally, it's nice to see a decidedly modern program, and one that doesn't try to sofften it with works that have nothing to do with the new pieces. Instead, the offer up the most accessible and the most familiar as bookends, and in the process, create something that speaks well about both the new pieces and the older ones. And the encore choice was an inspired change of directions, a spacious moment of breath and quiet after the rather thick music which preceded it.


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