Tag: string quartet

Sounds Heard: An Exaltation of Larks—The Lark Quartet performs Jennifer Higdon

Grammy and Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon certainly doesn’t require an introduction, yet it’s remarkable how often people’s opinions of her music seem—for better or for worse—to be formed based on her fantastically successful orchestral works. This new release from Bridge Records showcases a more intimate collection of chamber works that are unmistakably Higdon’s but which explore different reaches of her musical interests than tend to find expression in her large and frequently blockbuster orchestral works. It’s a refreshingly different side of her music and a great starting place towards appreciating what makes this composer tick.

Leading off, An Exaltation of Larks (2005) is 16-minute work in a single extended movement originally commissioned for the Toyko Quartet. The composition is a natural match for the Lark Quartet, and not just because of its title. The Lark is a quartet rooted in tradition and lyricism, yet the four musicians have an openness and sensitivity to timbre that brings their interpretations nuance as well as occasional edge. Likewise, Higdon’s music is also rooted in traditional means and sources, yet handled with a sense of humor and curiosity that expands classical tradition even as it draws from it. In the right measure, the tension between these complimentary tendencies is eloquent, personal, and strikingly realized. An Exaltation of Larks begins tenderly and is never far from receding into a kind of hushed, expectant quiet, yet the piece blossoms in several forays into ever more ecstatic (and just bordering on frenetic) patterns of rapid string crossing. It’s a great showpiece for the Lark Quartet and an impressive tour-de-force of the many ways a skilled composer can manage to be expressive and creative even when adhering (mostly) to solidly traditional quartet writing. The ability to achieve Higdon’s level of sheer sonic interest via largely traditional means is one of her most attractive qualities as a composer—an incredibly vivid imagination combined with a certain plainspoken, straightforward demeanor. (Those who know her might agree that this is a rather accurate portrait of the composer herself!)

Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams (1999) adds Gary Graffman to the mix for a left-hand-only piano quintet. Higdon writes that the inspiration for this work came from her curiosity over about dreams of poets: “Because they presumably work in a world of imagination, would their dreams be different than what others might dream? Or are we all poets in our own dream worlds? The poet might be the main character or s/he might also just be part of the fabric, observing from the sidelines. This also represents the pianist’s role within a piano quintet, prominent but also just part of the story.”

This is especially true of the piano part in Higdon’s quintet, in which Graffman’s role is almost inconsequential enough to be superfluous, yet sparingly doled out over the entire composition to great effect—another example of Higdon’s economy of means providing character and interest. The movements lean toward the tranquil, although the third movement is worth noting for its positively nightmarish depiction of a host of electric insects. Here, Higdon breaks out all the stops including glissandi, tremolo passages, and ponticello effects punctuated by a funky groove in the low register of the piano—a rare eruption of instrumental color rendered all the more effective by the sturdy simplicity of the previous movements. Graffman’s playing is deft as always and the Larks pull off the virtuosity with a ferocity that made me imagine the cloud of rosin they must have inevitably produced during the recording session. By contrast, the quintet’s opening movement is a kind of cosmic reverie that cycles through all major keys, accelerating faster and faster through sudden changes of color, dynamics, and harmony.

The disc’s final offering, Light Refracted (2002) adds clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Blair McMillen to perform with members of the quartet. The work follows out of Higdon’s popular orchestral work Blue Cathedral. Inspired by Monet’s studies of the same subject viewed in different light, Higdon takes another look at her own musical materials and the result is a compelling two-movement work that becomes even more interesting for listeners who are already familiar with Blue Cathedral and will be able to appreciate the many ways that Higdon recasts that material.

Kronos Quartet Welcomes New Cellist Sunny Jungin Yang

Sunny Jungin Yang, photo courtsey of Music@Menlo/Tristan Cook

Sunny Jungin Yang, photo courtsey of [email protected]/Tristan Cook

The Kronos Performing Arts Association announced today that the Kronos Quartet will welcome a new cellist, Sunny Jungin Yang, to the ensemble this June. Yang will succeed Jeffrey Zeigler, who has performed with the quartet for the past eight seasons and will step down from the group this May.

“I’m unbelievably thrilled to be joining Kronos!” Yang says. “The Quartet has always been an inspiration to me, and I never dreamed that one day I would be part of this fantastic and unique ensemble. I’m looking forward to creating and sharing exciting music with my new colleagues.”

Zeigler’s departure is motivated by his desire to work on solo projects and new collaborations, and to begin teaching at Mannes College The New School For Music. He is relocating to Brooklyn, New York, where his wife, composer Paola Prestini, serves as Creative Director of the heralded new music venue OMW (Original Music Workshop).

Jeffrey Zeigler, photo Courtesy Jay Blakesberg

Jeffrey Zeigler, photo Courtesy Jay Blakesberg

Zeigler said of Kronos, “I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to create music with some of the world’s most exciting artists in many of the world’s most prestigious venues. It has been an honor and a joy for me to share the stage with David, John and Hank. They are wonderful colleagues and will continue to be my friends. I would like to thank them and t

he entire organization for their tireless work and support over these past eight years.”
Ziegler’s last performances with Kronos will be May 10 and 11 at Peak Performances in Montclair, NJ, where the group will perform with violinist/performance artist/composer Laurie Anderson in Landfall, an evening-length collaboration. Yang will take the stage with Kronos for the first time on June 22, inaugurating the quartet’s 40th-anniversary season with a free concert featuring Chinese pipa player Wu Man at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, CT.

(—from the press materials)

String Quartet Smackdown! In Austin

How many times during a heated debate about chamber music have you longed for a pair of boxing gloves or perhaps a cricket bat? In the topsy-turvy world of new music, sometimes having a solid piece of wood in your hand can be quite useful. Long gone are the thoughtful, dispassionate discussions of historical significance and the careful dissections of dogma peppered with compromise. These have been replaced by heated accusations, wild ad hominem arguments, and other madness which, if allowed to continue unchecked, will not end well. I say we let the music duke it out and let the audience decide. Via text message. The organizers of Golden Hornet Project’s “String Quartet Smackdown!” clearly agree that the present state of musical debate requires an overhaul. Staid competitions with pedigreed judges be damned! We’ve got smart phones, strong opinions, and a fully stocked bar. Let’s get cracking.

Golden Hornet Project’s “String Quartet Smackdown!”

Featuring sixteen quartet compositions chosen anonymously from among over 100 entries, the Smackdown! was held at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater, home to regular avant jazz shows as well as secretive, Masonic meetings. Set up to run like the last few rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, the Smackdown! started with a “Sweet Sixteen” round in which the first minute of each quartet was played. Full disclosure: I had a piece in this competition. Its involvement was…brief. This was followed by an “Elite Eight” round with two minutes per piece performed, a “Final Four” with three minutes each, and the Championship in which the last two pieces were played in their entirety. The Tosca String Quartet took on the sizeable task of learning all sixteen string quartets in a few weeks and having each one under their fingers in the event that it reached the final round. One of the entrance requirements was that each piece needed to be right around four minutes (lots of single movements out there), but that’s still over an hour of new music to learn in a relatively short time. Tosca did a fantastic job, not only performing flawlessly but also avoiding having even a single page out of order or any other similar issue which could have easily thrown a monkey wrench into a presentation in which timing and solid performances mean the difference between glory and an early trip to the bar. They also managed to keep straight faces when at the end of each work’s allotted one, two, or three minutes, the gong which signaled “time is up” broke into the flow of the piece, cutting it short as required by the rules. This was funny at first (there used to be this t.v. show…), but after the first few thwacks it started to wear out its welcome. Fortunately, the timers backed off on the hits as the show went on.

Some contests were close!...Some contests were not so close.

Some contests were close!…Some contests were not so close.

Once the gong was struck, the audience was given a few minutes to text their vote and the results came up on a large screen behind Tosca. Watching the real-time “Battle of the Bars” was half the fun, and the audience reactions to contests close and not-so-close were chock full of “oohs” and “aahs.” In the interest of anonymity the quartets were all assigned numbers, one through sixteen, so one would see SQ1 -vs- SQ16 and so on. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that most audience members would be able to “put names to faces” with a given piece, so to speak. For instance, my piece went out in spectacular fashion in the first round, but I suspect that a few of the people who voted for it might have wanted to know who wrote it, and even though the names and titles of each work were included in the program and shown on the screen at the end of the competition, there was no correlation with the numbering system. An industrious audience member (or one with a notebook, pen, email communication with the contest coordinators, and modest research abilities) could probably dig up the facts, but letting people know whose piece was being played at a given time probably wouldn’t have had a huge impact on the voting and would have given said audience member an idea of which composer to check out the next day.

Tosca String Quartet at the String Quartet Smackdown!

Hopefully the audience took those programs home and checked out all of the composers, because there were a number of wonderful pieces included in the show. The gentle introspection of Jonathan Russell’s …in the fir trees: fireflies, with its slow and quiet rising lines, offered a wonderful contrast to the rhythmic intensity and harmonic crunchiness of David Biedenbender’s Surface Tension. Despite its compelling use of pre-recorded materials slowly overtaken by the strings, Steven Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids also went out in the first round, so I didn’t feel too bad about getting my card punched before intermission. Ruben Naeff’s Little JACKASS (originally JACKASS written for the JACK Quartet) was another strong work; odd time signatures gave shape to quiet high-register rhythmic figures which descended by and by and were joined by longer lines, still walking in lock-step with those asymmetrical rhythms. But in the end, there could be only one, and the catchy rhythms and strong melodies of Chris Black’s Fifteen Grand in a Paper Sack came out on top.

All in all the Smackdown! was a resounding success. It was well attended, and the diverse audience didn’t look to be new music regulars, which I contend is a good thing. As far as I could tell, no one left during intermission, which is a victory for any show. The fact that the audience played an active role in the proceedings coupled with relatively short pieces made for a presentation that was compelling and easily digestible. Given this, I wonder if at the next Smackdown! we could hear the pieces in their entirety from the get go? No one seemed anxious to leave, and while it would certainly add time to the event it would also let more slowly evolving pieces do their thing. (I’m not referring to my piece. It was pretty evolved by the time it got smacked by Sarah Norris’s Stalin Does The Robot).

I can see the Tosca’s reviewing their contract right now…