What a week it’s been! Five intense days of rehearsal, four fantastic pieces of music, and six musicians who not only play well together, but like each other as friends, too. It’s magic, really, this festival.
One of the highlights for me was getting to work with the distinguished composer Joan Tower, whose works were featured this past weekend. She is remarkable. Sharp, witty, and ever so slightly irreverent (both of herself and her music), she put us at immediate ease when we played through her pieces for her. They are not easy – and put us to the test – much as Beethoven does in his great string quartets. Tower described her works as having “motives of intention”, which is a perfect description for how Beethoven constructed his greatest works.
The program, which was constructed by the husband and wife artistic team of Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi, was very deftly assembled. Haydn – who essentially invented the string quartet form as we have come to know it – was represented by his Op. 33 no 2 quartet “The Joke”. It has all manner of witty asides – some of which are obvious, like the false endings that conclude the piece – and some which are meant for the musicians alone, with strange glissandi, unusual voicing, and the like. As Joan mentioned in her remarks, Haydn took risks as a composer. In this quartet (as in many of his others), he stops time and challenges the audience by using their own expectations to confound them. True genius.
On Saturday’s concert, the piece of Joan’s that was featured was her Rising, for flute and string quartet, written in 2009 for flutist Carol Wincenc and the Juilliard Quartet. We in the quartet (Megumi Stohs Lewis, Sasha Callahan, myself, and Leo Eguchi) were joined by Portland flutist Amelia Lukas. In the warm and enveloping acoustic of the J. Christopher Wines barrel room, the sound of the flute soared at any dynamic, supported by the bristling carpet of string figurations that are characteristic of Tower’s writing.
On Sunday’s concert, Sasha, Leo, and I were joined by violinist Greg Ewer for Tower’s Fifth String Quartet, White Water. I adore this piece, and not just because it starts with a viola solo in its most plangent register. It is, as some jazz musicians say, a tight piece. There are no extraneous gestures in the 17 minute quartet – which is in one continuous, flowing movement – and it makes great demands upon the players, all of which are made gratifying by the musical content (which cannot always be said about some pieces of music, whose content can be sparse, but the musical demands horrific).
The concluding piece both days was Beethoven’s Op. 59 no 2 Rasumovsky quartet. This 40-plus minute piece is the height of his middle period quartet writing. As a performer, one of my favorite games to play is seeing trends in a composer’s work and following where they go as the composer continues their writing in the genre. For example, the first movement of the quartet has some of Beethoven’s most intricate intertwining writing for the four instruments, which to me foreshadows what he would unleash on the quartet in his epic Op. 130 quartet’s first movement. His grand, unhurried, and serene slow movement (the longest in the piece) foreshadows his sublimely incandescent slow movement from his Op. 132 quartet, his Hymn of Thanksgiving. Interestingly, his scherzo (one of his unique five part scherzo form movements) looks back to Haydn with its misplaced accents and folk material). Finally, the galloping Finale again looks forward to his massive finale to the Op. 131 quartet, with its iterations of the long-short dotted figures that propel the movement from beginning to breathless end.
Making that journey from ‘Papa’ Haydn to Joan Tower to Beethoven made me think of the remarkable progress that the string quartet has made in those nearly 250 years, and of its incredible flexibility in the hands of composers who wish to make the full use of the ‘simple’ complement of two violas, and viola, and a cello. What a miracle the quartet is! The materials can change, but the essentials are this: four musical equals making conversation together. Sometimes there are arguments, even downright fisticuffs. Other times there are moments of great tenderness, the un-burdening of one’s deepest fears, loves, and hopes. And yet other times there are jokes, pranks, japes, and jests – all manner of silliness. That is life, and that is what the great works for the string quartet encompass. And that is why I love them so.