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Del Sol
String Quartet

November 9, 2006

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Intelligent Fare

By David Bratman

A concert of intelligently chosen and — more important — interesting new music can be a pleasant change of pace, even for listeners who generally prefer to hear works they already know, set down fair-and-square with no contradictions. It’s particularly gratifying when the works not only fit together, but also use similar techniques in differing ways.

It’s even more pleasant when the new music leaves its usual inner-city and college-campus haunts and ventures out to the suburbs. On Thursday the Del Sol String Quartet, dedicated Bay Area promoters of new music, came down to the Finn Center in Mountain View, home of the Community School of Music and Arts, to present their wares. Over the week they also gave the same concert in West Marin, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

Clockwise from top left:
Charlton Lee, Kate Stenberg,
Rick Shinozaki, and Hannah Addario-Berry
Photos by Mark Rutherford,
John Champlin, and Jim Block

Finn Center’s concert space is Tateuchi Hall, a wood-lined, concrete venue with about 170 plush seats and an unusually deep stage for such a small auditorium. The players stood (except for cellist Hannah Addario-Berry, who sat, of course) near the back of the stage directly behind two microphone poles, but neither auditory nor visual impairment got in the way of the performances. Two of the program’s three living composers were present at the concert and they stood up to introduce their works. Theirs were also the most recently written pieces, both completed earlier this year.

The Iranian Reza Vali, has lived for many years in Pittsburgh, where he teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s quite well-represented in recordings: There are at least three commercial CDs consisting entirely of his music. His Naysh‚boorák (Calligraphy No. 6) is inspired by traditional Persian music, and it uses an old modal scale with one note that’s almost, but not quite, a quarter tone off from the others. Vali likes to approach this particular note with conspicuous, rising glissandos.

That’s not the only way in which this work is unlike Western composers’ visits to the “exotic” Middle East. Despite its folk influence, this was by far the most traditionally modernist work on the program. In the opening section the four voices, repeatedly layered over each other, buzz around in a tight, tonally restricted range. The release into a more relaxed dancelike middle section comes like the breaking of a fever.

Quirky inspiration, standard form

The other composer present, a 26-year-old American named Eric Lindsay, began writing as one of those 9-year-old prodigies you sometimes hear about. He has a distinct taste for whimsical inspirations — he once set the Monopoly rules to music. The piece he contributed to this concert was inspired by a collection of Web parodies of an autistic child’s lost-pet posters for his toy frog. Lindsay said he was struck by the propagation of parodies from various hands, and wrote a string quartet “based on the rapid exchange and mutation of ideas.” This seems a rather elaborate way to arrive at a standard, basic musical concept. And if the poster parodies are weirdly silly, Lindsay’s Hopkin and the Wired Night (Hopkin was the frog’s name) is nothing like that at all.

It’s a perfectly ordinary, sober work that sounds neither parodic nor froggy. It’s based on scalar figures that the performers play over each other. These are less layered than in the Vali piece, and Lindsay’s style feels freer and less constricted. The musical lines break apart in sections and then return together. The most intense moments came when the first violin (Kate Steinberg) played a piercing, repeated figure over long melodies in the viola (Charlton Lee). What the piece lacked was a sense of overall structure.

Jack Body, a composer from New Zealand, wrote his Epicycle for the Kronos Quartet in 1989. More recently, he revised it by extending the final section, and this was the premiere of the new version. Body has a distinct talent for expressing imaginative ideas in purely musical forms. The opening section of Epicycle is a clever display of kaleidoscopic transformation. A fast-running figure in all four instruments develops sforzando notes that spin off into a second, slower melody. This, in turn, is elaborated on, stretched, and overlayed using phase techniques, while the running melody continues as an ostinato in one instrument or another. The middle section sounds more like Vali, full of dynamically varying crescendos that give off an impression of the Doppler effect. It's as if this were a musical depiction of cars driving by. The final section features heavy unison chord phrases.

Impressive programming

With such new music on the program, it may seem surprising that the fourth work, which began the concert, was written 75 years ago by a composer who has been deceased for over four decades. It’s all the more surprising given that he is remembered for his politically charged stage work and not for chamber music at all. But Mark Blitzstein’s String Quartet “The Italian” is, in a sense, a new work. This student work has almost never been heard before, and the Del Sol Quartet gave perhaps its first professional performance last month.

It wasn't completely out of place, musically. All four composers write chromatically without regarding themselves as obliged to show off their technique or engage in mathematical analysis. For them, the music is not about special effects, but the gradual, phased transmutation of material. Blitzstein demonstrates this with frequent exchanges among instruments: He does not forget to give the second violinist (Rick Shinozaki) as many solos as the others. After three fairly fast movements, the concluding Lento is a dirgelike compilation of repeated figures. Overall, the work is more delicate in sound than the others in this concert, with bouncier rhythms and shorter-breathed phrases.

It’s admirable for the Del Sol Quartet to select such an intelligent and interesting program, and they tackled it gamely. If only they had the musical proficiency to do justice to it. They can give relaxed, go-with-the-flow performances of contemplative, environmental music. But they lack the strict discipline and rigid ensemble required for the busier, more complex works on this program. Everything was interesting, but nothing came alive or developed a real sense of flow. Technically, the performers seemed hesitant. They avoided the risk of disaster by remaining as far back from the edge of the music as they were from the edge of the stage.

Were the first violin’s repeated figures in the Lindsay supposed to be as inconsistently played and half-swallowed as Steinberg gave them? Or, should they have rung out in a crisp, relentless ostinato? Only another performance or a look at the score could answer this, but I suspect the latter. This concert was a good notion, but the music would have benefited from a more assured performance.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved