Thursday, April 23, 2020

ASQ Brings Social Distancing to Haydn Recital

Since the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), consisting of violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson, has been Ensemble in Residence at San Francisco State University since 1989, it had never occurred to me that they would also have a residency on “the other coast.” I was therefore surprised to learn a week ago that they also held a residency at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC) of Baruch College in Manhattan. Under BPAC auspices they were invited to prepare a “cyberspace performance” of Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ in its string quartet version (Hoboken III/50–56).

This music has interesting history. It began as orchestral music to serve as meditations that would take place for each of the “Seven Words” at a Good Friday service in Cádiz. The original commission was for an oratorio; but Haydn provided a sequence of seven meditative “sonatas” framed by a Maestoso ed Adagio introduction and a concluding depiction of the earthquake (Presto e con tutta la forza) that following the Crucifixion. The music was commissioned in 1786 and published the following year, when it was performed in Cádiz. The year after that (1787), Haydn adapted the score for string quartet and later (in 1796) recast the music as an oratorio with a libretto of German pietist poetry. These days the quartet version tends to be the most familiar.

The “cyberspace” factor in the ASQ performance has to do with the fact that all of the performers were playing in their respective homes. As can be seen in this screen shot:

ASQ members (counter-clockwise from upper left) Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Paul Yarbrough, and Sandy Wilson (captured from the YouTube Web page)

all of them were “connected” through earbuds. I suspect that this was their only means of connection, since it is likely that the above “mosaic” display was only created after all four of the individual videos had been captured. Clearly, these are not the best of circumstances. As has been discussed frequently on this site, eye contact tends to be as crucial a factor in the performance of chamber music as is auditory awareness. In this particular setting it would not be reasonable to expect much more than a dutiful account of the marks on the score pages.

Those accounts were framed in “meditative contexts” that reflected the original intention for the music. Each movement following the Introduction was preceded by a reading of poetry or prose (or both) presented by one of the ASQ performers. There was no attempt to emulate the discourses presented at the original performance. Rather, all of the movements were framed in sources with decidedly contemporary connotations.

The entire video was screened last night (Eastern Time) as a “live” YouTube video. That YouTube Web page is now set up to replay the performance, and it will be available through May 6. That Web page, in turn, provides a hyperlink to the program notes, which include a background essay by Eric Bromberger and all of the texts (with appropriate citations) of the “meditations” that take place between the movements. This offering may not capture the immediacy that one expects of a chamber music recital, but it is impressive for the imaginative approach taken to production.

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