The Arnica Quartet (of which I am the violist) is busily preparing for our March 15th concert at the Old Church in downtown Portland. It’s an ambitious program, but one that I think will go over well, especially as part of Bob Priest’s third annual March Music Moderne festival, which runs from March 7 – 23, 2013.
Featured in the video above are excerpts from Saturday’s rehearsal of the String Quartet No. 1 (1909) of Béla Bartók. It is an ambitious work – written when the composer was just 28 years old – that clearly lays out where Bartók’s musical influences began (Beethoven, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Debussy), and where they would shortly go with a vengeance (folk music and its related idioms). It begins with a slow movement, quasi-fugato, which is an homage to Beethoven’s opening adagio fugue in his astonishing seven movement Op. 131 quartet. Overall, the work is a gradual accelerando, ending in a frenzied fugue and a climactic rush to the end that never fails to be exhilarating.
The other bookend of the concert couldn’t be much more different. It is Esa Pekka Salonen’s first work for string quartet, Homunculus, which was written for the Johannes Quartet in 2008. Whereas the Bartók begins slowly and ends quickly, Homunculus begins with the smallest and quickest note values (perhaps representing the apocryphal Homunculi that was once believed to have inhabited every sperm and which then grew into full-sized humans) and gradually expands into sustained tones that fade into the ether. We are scheduled to have a coaching with Maestro Salonen on March 11 via Skype, which I will write about in detail later this week. Here are a few bits of Homunculus from a recent rehearsal:
In between these two densely packed and intellectually rigorous works there are two works which forsake the cerebral and explore the spiritual aspects of humanity. The first is Tenebrae by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, written for the Kronos Quartet in 2002. Golijov writes:
“I wrote Tenebrae as a consequence of witnessing two contrasting realities in a short period of time in September 2000. I was in Israel at the start of the new wave of violence that is still continuing today, and a week later I took my son to the new planetarium in New York, where we could see the Earth as a beautiful blue dot in space. I wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives. That is, if one chooses to listen to it “from afar”, the music would probably offer a “beautiful” surface but, from a metaphorically closer distance, one could hear that, beneath that surface, the music is full of pain. I lifted some of the haunting melismas from Couperin’s Troisieme Leçon de Tenebrae, using them as sources for loops, and wrote new interludes between them, always within a pulsating, vibrating, aerial texture. The compositional challenge was to write music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground. After finishing the composition, I realized that Tenebrae could be heard as the slow, quiet reading of an illuminated medieval manuscript in which the appearances of the voice singing the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet (from Yod to Nun, as in Couperin) signal the beginning of new chapters, leading to the ending section, built around a single, repeated word: Jerusalem.”
The second piece is by the Estonian mystic composer Arvo Pärt. The work, Fratres, may be his most popular composition. Written in 1977 and revised in 1983, it has been arranged by the composer for the following forces:
Strings and percussion
Violin, strings and percussion
Cello and piano
Four, eight, twelve… cellos
Wind octet and percussion
Violin and piano
Viola and Piano
Guitar, string orchestra and percussion
It is a simple work, consisting of nine chord sequences, beginning all in harmonics and moving to full voice as the piece evolves, with plucked drum strokes played by the cello over an open fifth drone in the second violin.