I admit to some trepidation as I proceeded to the beautiful War Memorial Opera House in downtown San Francisco. While I had heard of this composer, Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), it was only through one work which was contained on a disc with other microtonal works by John Cage and Harry Partch performed variously by Joshua Pierce, Dorothy Jonas, and Johnny Reinhard (among others). And microtonal music can be tedious in some hands.
Adding to the sense of obscurity, the concert was in a small chamber music hall on the fourth floor. Other events ran concurrently on this night. The hall was nearly filled to its capacity of just under 300 people most of whom I would guess have never heard of this composer. But they likely had heard of the Arditti Quartet and clearly put their trust in the amazing ear and mind of executive and artistic director Charles Amirkhanian to deliver a satisfying musical experience which he does most reliably. This concert was no exception.
The Arditti Quartet was formed in 1974 and quickly became known as one of the finest interpreters of contemporary string quartet music. Their repertoire is vast and they do not shy away from technical difficulty or other artistic challenges. In fact they had recorded the Wyschnegradsky Quartets but, sadly, that recording is out of print. Even more interesting is the fact that tonight’s performance constitutes U.S. premieres for all the works on this concert except for the Haas Quartet (included at the suggestion of Mr. Arditti to fill out the program). Another astonishing fact shared by Amirkhanian is that this is the only time that the quartet has been asked to play this music in concert. There are plans to release those recordings in the near future pending negotiations with record companies.
Mention needs to be made of the talents of OM’s graphic designer (and stage manager among other duties), Mark Abramson. His work on this and last year’s program booklets take things to a new level of excellence. The program notes by Charles Amirkhanian, Randall Wong, and Blaine Todd are both lucid and comprehensive (a very necessary thing in dealing with new and obscure music). And the photos of the composer and the performers along with some of the composer’s own art work make this another true collector’s item. Previous programs were certainly well done but this is a step up.
I chose to just listen and to read the notes later rather than get caught up in details. Indeed that was a good choice. Wyschnegradsky’s approach to the use of microtones seems more focused on the possibilities of extending melodic language than the harmonic and my understanding of complex harmony is admittedly limited anyway. Of course the harmony is necessarily different than the western models of the 18th and 19th centuries but the music, at least in the hands of such talented interpreter’s such as the Arditti speaks rather directly to the listener.
The music was presented chronologically in order of the years these pieces were composed (String Quartet No.1, 1923-4, rev. 1953-4), (String Quartet No. 2, 1930-1), (String Quartet No. 3, 1945, rev. 1958-9), and (Composition for string quartet, 1960, rev. 1966-70) completed the first half of the program. There was surprisingly little in the way of dissonance and the quartet played with a palpable intensity and concentration creating very convincing performances.
The second half began with Wyschnegradsky’s last composition, a String Trio (1978-9). Incomplete at the time of his death the trio was revised completed by Claude Ballif. Again what one hears is not what you might expect from microtonality. The composer has realized a uniquely effective way to use microtones. Hearing this survey makes the composer’s vision clear and places him in the company of such as Alois Hába (1893-1973), Harry Partch (1901-1974), and Ben Johnston (1926- ) to name a few.
The revelation for this listener was hearing a good sampling of the composer’s vision and a creative way to use microtones unlike any other composer really. And it became clear too why Charles chose to revive this unique voice in the musical world. This is beautiful music.
As mentioned earlier Mr. Arditti had remarked that the Wyschnegradsky Quartet and Trio music would not quite fill an evening and he suggested they play the Second String Quartet (of about 6 now I believe) by Austrian born composer Georg Friedrich Haas (1953- ). It was the only work which was not a U.S. premiere.
Arditti’s ear for programming was finely as tuned as ever and this quartet provided a very satisfying finale to the evening filled with wonderful discoveries. While this particular quartet uses some microtones the style is denser and more dissonant overall than the preceding music. This is not to say that it was not entertaining, rather it is illustrative of the rich possibilities of microtonal composition. The Arditti again shows itself to be at the forefront of the finest interpreters of the modern string quartet and clearly Haas is a name worth knowing as well. Bravo!
Save the dates June 15 and 16 for the last two concerts in this year’s Other Minds 24 program.