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Ives Quartet Full Court Impress

David Bratman on October 9, 2012
Ives Quartet
Ives Quartet

The Ives Quartet is a locally based ensemble that offers gems of concerts. Its programming customarily includes one contemporary or unusual modern work along with older, better-known material. I was drawn like a bee to honey to Sunday’s concert at Le Petit Trianon in San José — it repeats at St. Mark’s Church in Palo Alto on Friday, the 12th — by the rare presence of the United Quartet (No. 4) by Henry Cowell.

Cowell (1897–1965) is a composer of special interest in these parts, especially right now with the recent publication of Joel Sachs’ long-awaited comprehensive biography from Oxford University Press. Cowell was born in Menlo Park and raised there and in San Francisco, and he was a pioneer both in experimental modernist techniques and in ethnomusicology. Chinese music he heard in the city as a boy was probably his first inspiration for importing Eastern techniques into Western classical music. He inspired many pupils and followers, including those two other noted California experimentalists, John Cage (this year’s big centenary composer) and Lou Harrison.

Cowell’s United Quartet, composed in 1936, is an endearingly goofy exercise in primitivist melodies, quirky rhythms — much of it in fives, which cellist Stephen Harrison says is a challenge, as “musicians can’t count beyond four” (his words, not mine) — and odd sound effects. The fourth of five movements accompanies a stiff modal tune with knocks and slaps on the instruments’ bodies; in fact, the second violin does nothing else for the whole movement. When the Colorado Quartet played this work, its second violinist spared her instrument by equipping herself with a wooden block and a mallet; the Ives’ Susan Freier actually rapped the body of her violin with her knuckles, not looking too comfortable about doing it.

A performance in the Ives Quartet’s typical hard-edged style made this work sound like a culmination of Cowell’s earlier experimental works of the 1910s and ’20s, rather than looking forward to his populist and multicultural phase of the ’40s and ’50s. The drones of the opening movement were full of stringent and whining dissonance; the quiet third movement vanished into the distance and felt like a copy of his intricate earlier Quartet Euphometric; and the off-kilter march finale that moves from hesitant to fast was motoric rather than jaunty.

Cowell’s United Quartet … is an endearingly goofy exercise in primitivist melodies, quirky rhythms … and odd sound effects.

Another work on the bill, Bedřich Smetana’s autobiographical Quartet From My Life (No. 1), is deeply personal and alarmingly varied in mood. The Ives Quartet’s performance was strongly expressionistic in emotion, as if Smetana were looking forward to Janáček. The tender side of the music was not at a premium. Jodi Levitz gave the many viola solos with deep grit and a strong spitting edge; Harrison’s solo in the slow movement was more inward in its expressiveness. The lively polkas in the second movement and finale were played seriously, with an absence of carefree abandon. This meant that the critical moment in the middle of the finale, depicting the onset of the composer’s tinnitus and deafness, with a piercing high E on Bettina Mussumeli’s first violin, followed by slow reminiscences of the earlier movements, lacked some degree of shattering impact. It did, however, add the inestimable advantage that the polkas never wore out their welcome by inconsequential repetition, because these polkas had consequence. The stomping emphasis on the sforzandos in the second movement was particularly striking, and particularly welcome.

Dreamy Masterpiece

Also on the program was Haydn’s Quartet in F, Op. 50, No. 5, known as “The Dream” for its ethereally spun-out slow movement, and one of his lesser-known masterworks. The first two books on Haydn I looked it up in, in fact, didn’t even mention it, though they did allude to all the other quartets in Op. 50. Like all Haydn quartets, though, it has its own unique and memorable points. The most unmistakable comes in the first movement, which is constructed entirely of conversational pairings of the two violins on one side and the viola and cello on the other.

The Ives Quartet is always up for the game of putting its own distinctive interpretations on the music.

The violins begin the main theme unaccompanied by lower harmony, then the others stick in a deliberate wrong note before joining in with more conventional support. We might expect the hard-nosed Ives players of the Cowell and Smetana works to use this moment as an excuse for a biting clash. Here, though, they performed as if in a genteel country dance. Imagine, if they were dancers, the viola and cello spinning away from their partners at the wrong note and executing a turn in place before joining hands four-around for the resumed harmony.

And so it went throughout the quartet, with the adagio and minuet being courteous rather than emotional or rustic. Another of Haydn’s memorable whimsies appears in the finale, where the first violin is instructed to play a wide-ranging rising melody on a single string, sliding her finger up to change the pitch. Derek Katz’ program notes describe this as “an awkward approach that no violinist would choose of her own free will.” Actually, this technique has a name. It’s called portamento, and string players used to do it all the time, though it’s fallen terribly out of fashion. Mussumeli had the courage to follow the instructions, and didn’t entirely avoid the audible slides in pitch as some performers of this work do, but she sounded as if she didn’t quite believe that Haydn really meant it.

Whatever the composers may have meant, the Ives Quartet is always up for the game of putting its own distinctive interpretations on the music, and I’m always grateful for the opportunity to hear works by interesting modern and contemporary composers.