Last night at Old First Church, the Old First Concerts (O1C) recital series presented the most-recently designated O1C Artists-in-Residence, the members of the Friction Quartet. Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel continue to alternate in taking the positions of first and second violin. They are joined by violist Taija Warbelow and founding cellist Doug Machiz. This ensemble is currently celebrating its fifth anniversary season. The program was the first of three that will be presented at O1C over the course of that season.
While this group has had particular interest in exploring recent compositions and providing world-premiere opportunities for current composers, one of the pieces that has been with them since their earliest days has been Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet; and this was the most retrospective piece on last night’s program. (For the record, I first listened to Friction perform this quartet in November of 2012.) The remainder of the program was devoted to currently active composers, one from the Bay Area (Brian Baumbusch), one from England (Piers Hellawell), and one from Ireland (Garth Knox). The result was an evening rich not only in repertoire but in basic approaches to making music.
It is hard to think of Ravel as controversial; but in his early days, between 1900 and 1905, his public reputation was impaired by his inability to win the Prix de Rome after five attempts, a major stumbling block being his failure to master the art of writing fugues. The string quartet established him as a composer with a gift for eliciting unique sonorities, a trait that tended to provoke the academics but went down very well with the general public. Each of the quartet’s four movements explores different approaches to the sounds of the instruments, both individually and in a variety of combinations. This approach, in turn, allowed Ravel also to explore new strategies for expressive performance; and many of those techniques would find their way into rhetorical devices explored in his later work as well as in the efforts of composers who succeeded him. Friction understood Ravel’s prioritization of sonority when they first began to perform Ravel’s quartet, and that understanding is as fresh and exhilarating now as it was then.
At the same time that idea of exploring new approaches to expressive performance clearly influences the group’s pursuit of new repertoire. The program opened with Baumbusch’s three-movement suite Three Elements, which offered up a boldly demanding set of approaches to establishing rhythm. For the outer two movements, “Helium” and “Mercury,” the performers wore ear buds, because each had to follow a click track with its own characteristic pace. The result was a unique approach in which consonance and dissonance had more to do with synchronization than with the superposition of different pitch classes. The middle movement, “Lithium,” on the other hand, turned to a more homophonic approach based on a common sense of how time passed. Was this movement based on the mood-stabilizing effects of lithium ions used for psychotropic purposes? The overall experience of the suite could be taken as a journey in and out of mood swings with an effect that was more than a little disorienting. Nevertheless, between the keen sense of sonorities and the sheer virtuosity of it all, this was music was intriguing enough to encourage further listening.
Hellawell’s “Driftwood on Sand,” on the other hand, was an appealing exploration of indeterminacy. The foundation (sand) of the composition consists of two movements, the first amounting to an extended accompanied solo for the viola and the second a well-integrated jumble of disconnected fragments. Interspersed among these movements were four short “driftwood” interludes, which could be inserted in any order in the overall plan of the performances. Last night one introduced the composition, and the other three were played between the two longer movements.
The first of those movements was particularly effective, recalling (without ever imitating) the accompanied solos for all of the instruments found in the third movement of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet. The movement also provided an excellent platform for the rich sonorities of Warbelow’s viola work. On the other hand the idea of the interludes “drifting” among the movements could not be conveyed effectively through only a single performance. This is music that deserves familiarity through more frequent exposure. Only by establishing some orientation of sameness can one really begin to appreciate the differences that arise through Hellawell’s approach to indeterminacy.
Knox’ piece, another three-movement suite entitled Satellites, also offered some impressive accompanied-solo work. However, this piece was more of an adventurous exploration of different performing techniques. This began with a prolific diversity of approaches to getting sound out of the instrument. These involved not only bowing and plucking in non-standard locations but also knocking on the body of the instrument. Around the time the listener might have thought that all possibilities had been exhausted, the violinists between to swoop their bows through the air, creating a barely audible whooshing sound that would probably drive any recording engineer crazy. What had begun as an auditory experience began to morph into a visible one, allowing the coda to devolve into little more than all performers engaging in those visual swoops. Knox had some very clear ideas about innovative approaches to chamber music, but he can be just as well appreciated for his sense of humor.