Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) presented the members of the Friction Quartet (violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz) in their final recital in the capacity of O1C Artists-in-Residence. While the two violinists tend to share leadership, Harriel occupied the first violin chair for the entire concert. The first half of the program was dedicated to two premiere performances, the West Coast premiere of Will Healy’s “Future Caprices” and the United States premiere of Piers Hellawell’s “The Still Dancers.” The second half of the program consisted entirely of Bedřich Smetana’s second string quartet.
The first half of the program might have been called “Future and Past New Music.” Healy’s piece was commissioned by the Great Lakes Chamber Festival explicitly to be played by Friction. In his note for the program book, he suggested that the music had its origin in an effort “to imagine the type of concert music that will exist in coming years.”
In an earlier life I used to hang out with futurists, and I discovered that their forecasting tended to project forward by about several generations. I quickly saw the reason for the strategy: They would not be around to be taken to task if their projections were not realized! That sobering experience braced me for how Healy would face the task he had set for himself.
However, I quickly found myself dwelling on the second word of his title. As I watched the Friction players negotiate a series of awesomely challenging virtuoso passages, it was hard not to think of those 24 caprices for solo violin that Niccolò Paganini published as his Opus 1. In my imagination I found myself observing Healy looking at Paganini but with his telescope reversed, as if one could look at the future by looking at the past through the wrong end. While this may have been a personal impression that had nothing to do with what Healy had in mind, the dominant impact was established by the demanding technique and the apparent ease with which Friction negotiated all the twists and turns posed by those technical challenges.
The Hellawell premiere, on the other hand, was of a piece that was about 25 years old, since it was written in 1992. It consisted of three short pieces, each with an introductory “Invocation,” which could be played separately, rather than in sequence. Hellawell described each of the invocations as “using exploratory sound-worlds” through techniques such as knocking or scratching with a coarse surface. The “dancers” of the title were natural phenomena, “formed by movement but now apparently static,” as Hellawell put it. Those phenomena were trees, rocks, and clouds.
This past Wednesday I found myself comparing the techniques of John Luther Adams and Olivier Messiaen where large masses of rock were concerned. Hellawell has his own distinctive language in his second piece, probably because he was more interested in the lichen patterns on the surface, rather than in the rocks themselves. More interesting was how, across the entire composition, he could evoke impressions of stasis through a medium that, by its very nature, requires movement. The result was as engaging as it was imaginative, and it was delightful to learn that Hellawell is in the process of writing his next quartet for Friction.
Smetana described his second quartet as taking place “after the catastrophe.” That catastrophe had concluded his first quartet in E minor, which was given the programmatic title “From My Life.” A sustained high E played as a harmonic (demonstrated last night by Rogers) depicted the onset of Smetana’s deafness. By the time he began work on the second quartet in 1882, both his mental state and his entire body were thoroughly wrecked to the point that his doctor had ordered him to refrain from all musical activity. In introducing the second quartet, Harriel observed that writing a single measure involved massive effort.
It is therefore no surprise that the duration of the second quartet is about one-third shorter than that of the first. Smetana made every measure count, and the sensitive listener will quickly appreciate the emotional weight of each of those measures. To their credit, the Friction players never tried to overdo the intensity of Smetana’s rhetoric. One thus apprehended the poignancy of the situation without ever feeling as if the composer was wallowing in his grief. Harriel noted that this quartet is played far less often than the first. Friction has done a great service in giving it the attention it deserves; and perhaps at some future recital they will play the two quartets in sequence as successive episodes from the composer’s final years.