Last night the Brooklyn-based Mivos Quartet gave the first of two concerts at the Center for New Music (C4NM). (The second concert will be given tonight.) The members of the ensemble are violinists Olivia De Prato and Lauren Cauley, violist Victor Lowrie, and cellist Mariel Roberts. The program consisted of premiere performances of five works for string quartet all by graduate students in the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley, all aspiring to a doctoral degree. Except for a resume-style paragraph about Mivos itself, the program sheet consisted entirely of biographical paragraphs of these students, along with brief descriptions of their compositions, presumably all supplied by the students themselves, James Stone, Lily Chen, Jeremy Wexler, John Yu, and Scott Rubin.
The most salient impression of the evening was that Mivos is one hell of a string quartet. Each of the five selections on the program demanded prodigious effort in mastering non-standard approaches to performance; and, from my vantage point, it seemed as if even decoding the symbol structures on the score pages was equally demanding. Nevertheless, the group performed each piece with vigorously energetic confidence. Even more importantly, they gave a solid impression that they were, indeed, a string quartet, with each member always attuned to the activities of the other three.
Indeed, it often felt as if body language was informing the listener as much as auditory stimuli, perhaps even more so. Particular acknowledgement has to go to De Prato’s leadership. Often her posture and gesture did more to communicate when a piece had reached its conclusion than the music itself did. Furthermore, her comportment always seemed to be one of joyous satisfaction at having established yet another convincing conclusion.
If this sets the reader wondering whether that last paragraph was a cryptic suggestion that the music itself left much to be desired, my reply would be, “Not that all cryptic!” Indeed, there were times when the listener intent on sensemaking would have been forgiven for assuming that more effort had gone into the text paragraphs on the program sheet than had gone into the music itself. Yet it was pretty much consistently the case that all those efforts at text description tended to be puzzling, if not flat-out misleading or even downright incorrect. One would think that a major liberal arts academic institution would provide these young composers with no end of fascinating paths to consider, but comprehension rarely progressed beyond what amounted to a misreading of Cliff Notes.
The good news was that none of the five contributions to the program was excessively long. Furthermore, the determination of these students to go beyond conventional boundaries of performance technique was never less than creditable, which is probably why Mivos was able to come through with accounts that almost came to the threshold of being convincing and engaging. Nevertheless, there was a consistent impression that none of those students had given much through to what it would actually mean to listen to what they had conceived as marks on paper. It could easily have left one wondering if any of them knew what it meant to listen attentively to a string quartet by Joseph Haydn.