Other Minds 24 Revives the Quartets of Ivan Wyschnegradsky in San Francisco


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.

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This helpful sign in the elevator directed concert goers to the 4th floor recital room known as the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater

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.

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The stage awaits the performers with that OM logo projected on the floor.

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.

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Amirkhanian reminded the audience to silence those pesky cell phones.

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.

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The Arditti Quartet

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.

 

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Blaine Todd holds the OM bag (a Carol Law design) as Amirkhanian picks two raffle winners after intermission.

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.  

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The Arditti Quartet sans second violin Asot Sarkissjian on stage to play the Wyschnegradsky Trio

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.

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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!

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The musicians acknowledge the standing ovation and warm applause

Save the dates June 15 and 16 for the last two concerts in this year’s Other Minds 24 program.

Spektral Quartet, Serious Business


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OK, bear with me here for just a moment.  The proliferation of string quartets (and by that I mean the grouping of musicians as a performing entity) has been positively dizzying over the last 30 years.  For those who grew up with the standard Julliard Quartet, Guarneri Quartet, etc. there were just a few outstanding names in this genre.  However since the advent of the new quartets like Kronos and then Turtle Island, Arditti,etc. the field has expanded rather prolifically. Couple this with a boom in string quartet writing notably Elliot Sharp, John Zorn, Wolfgang Rihm. Elliot Carter, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ben Johnston among many others and I was filled with some trepidation upon receiving this disc for review.  I mean, how many things can you do with a string quartet?

Apparently there is a great deal more to be explored in this genre.  I am happy to say that these folks are up to the task as are the composers whose work they present.  Serious Business is some seriously interesting music performed with serious skill by this new quartet, the Spektral Quartet.  They are the string quartet in residence at the University of Chicago, itself a venerable place for new music.

We start here with a piece by Sky Macklay called Many Many Cadences (2014) a piece that seems to come from a similar place to that of the work of Conlon Nancarrow with intricate rhythms within a somewhat conservative tonal idiom.  The title is suggestive of Gertrude Stein (Many, Many Women).  It was commissioned for the Spektral Quartet by the Walden School.  The piece is immediately engaging and ultimately satisfying.

The second piece, The Ancestral Mousetrap (2014) by David Reminick features a less common use of a string quartet in that there is a vocal component. This is not the vocalist component pioneered by Schoenberg in his second quartet.  These vocalizations are performed by the quartet.  This is no simple feat either because the vocal writing is itself a challenge in its rhythmic complexity.  The piece resembles a little opera and indeed the text by poet Russell Edson is here called a libretto.  This piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet.

The third piece here is an unusual choice (and the only one not commissioned for the Spektral Quartet) which is explored in the liner notes .  Haydn’s Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, subtitled “The Joke” is one of the relatively few examples of attempts at program music (vs absolute music) to be found in the classical era.  First, no one will buy this disc just for the Haydn. Second, many collectors will already have this Haydn piece in their collection.  But with that said this is a lovely performance of one of the emblematic pieces of music that created the need for the performing ensemble known as the string quartet and it is a lovely performance as well.  I will leave it to other listeners to read the program notes and get into the rationale about its inclusion here.

The final piece, Hack (2015) by Chris Fisher-Lochead is perhaps the most unusual of the lot in that the composer uses vocal inflections by a collection of comedians (yes, comedians) as the source for his rhythmic and melodic contours and creates 22 separate pieces about 16 comedians (some get more than one piece).  This piece requires more concentration by the listener but, like any well-written piece, it reveals more of itself with repeated listenings.  The Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University commissioned this piece for the Spektral Quartet.

The Spektral Quartet is Clara Lyon, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rollen, cello.  The recording, as with every Sono Luminus release I’ve heard is glorious and lucid.