This is a sound I’ve never heard before at a chamber concert: over twenty musicians breathing in unison.
By Eric Fishman
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
— Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
In preparing to write this review, I faced two temptations.
The first temptation was rooted in my skepticism about classical concerts organized around themes. To me, thematic concerts tend to be a marketing ploy aimed at watering down the complexity of classic music. Who can really say what any piece of music is “about”? Thus, I was uncertain at how I would feel attending a concert purportedly “about” loss and resurrection, particularly on the evening of Good Friday.
This first temptation dissipated soon after I examined the evening’s program. The Miró Quartet joined A Far Cry to design this program for a single performance in Jordan Hall on March 30. The pieces — Beethoven’s Quartet No. 16, Kevin Puts’ Credo, and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen — all resist facile interpretation of their “messages.” My second temptation was, in reaction, to look for a way to intellectualize the concert, to treat the three pieces as an assertion about how impossible it is to ever conclude what a composer “thinks” about a topic such as loss.
Underneath the opening motif of the last movement of the Beethoven, for example, the composer wrote a worded exchange between the lower and upper strings. “Must it be?” ask the viola and cello. “It must be!” reply the violins. Does this dialogue represent Beethoven confronting the end of his life? Or does it simply depict an argument with a friend who owed him money, as some scholars assert? On the other hand, Strauss, composing in the closing months of the Second World War, quotes Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. On the score, he wrote “In Memorium!” below the score, leaving musicologists to debate the meaning of this wording. Was Strauss mourning the recent loss of the Vienna Opera house in a bombing, and with it the death of German art? Was he mourning the forces that drive humans to wage war? Or did he choose to quote the Eroica because he had become disillusioned with Hitler, just as a disillusioned Beethoven scratched out his symphonic dedication to Napoleon? It’s difficult not to be drawn into the complexity of these debates.
Yet this temptation toward analysis was shattered by the concert itself, which was such a human and heart-centered endeavor that I felt almost ashamed at having tried to approach it from the angle of abstract scholarship.
First of all, A Far Cry is simply more interesting to listen to, and watch, than a symphony orchestra. True, eighteen players – or twenty-two when joined by the Miró Quartet — cannot match the immersive volume of sound that a hundred-piece orchestra can produce. Yet whereas even some of the best orchestras in the world are no more than organic machines — responding to the behest of one man or woman standing at the front — the self-conducted and democratically-led A Far Cry is a miniature ecosystem of personalities.
This ecosystem of musicians was best represented by the last piece on the program, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, study for 23 solo strings. As one fellow concert-goer put it: “it’s like the piece was written for this group.” For this composition, the Miró joined the orchestral sections. The thickly interweaving harmonies offered opportunities for limitless permutations of dramatic encounters. Miró cellist Joshua Gindele exchanged an expressive opening dialogue with AFC cellist Rafi Popper-Keizer. Violinist Jesse Irons, standing like the rest of the violins and violas, slowly swayed side to side during measures of rest, slightly smiling, eyes half closed. A miniature drama unfolded as William Fedkenheuer, second violinist of the Miró, glanced over his shoulder to try and make eye contact with Irons. Rejected. He tried again – to no avail. Popper-Keizer’s long hair fell in front of his face, which he responded to by continuing to shake his head in time with the mournful climax – a look more typically sported by metal guitarists. Perhaps the most astonishing moment of the concert was at the climax of this piece, when there is a grand pause. After a long, tense moment of silence, bows in the hair, the entire group breathed as one to cue the next bar. This is a sound I’ve never heard before at a chamber concert: over twenty musicians breathing in unison.
The moment that moved me from an intellectual to an emotional space, however, was not on the program. Violinist Jae Cosmos Lee introduced Credo, which he arranged for the Miró to play as a “solo quartet” with orchestral backing. “You will not be reading your program during this piece,” he said to ripples of laughter in the audience. “However, when you do you will find descriptions of the specific inspirations Kevin Puts found for each movement. When Kevin was writing this piece, it was following the stock market crash, deep into the seemingly never-ending wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and immediately following the Virginia Tech shooting. Ten years after this piece was written, it still resonates. It’s been a tough year this year,” – here Lee began to get choked up – “and this piece teaches us how to find beauty in the world.”
So much for an intellectual approach to the concert.
In 2007, Daniel Ching, first violinist of the Miró, commissioned this piece from Puts for a concert dedicated to “the lighter side of America.” Puts found this a difficult assignment to fulfill given the traumas going on around him. He eventually decided to write about how “I have found solace in the strangest places: … in the workshop of a stringed instrument specialist …. The steel girders, asphalt and railroad ties of infrastructure … [and how] from my apartment, I watched in a window across 106th Street a mother teaching her daughter how to dance.”
The first movement, “The Violin Guru of Katonah,” is remarkably figurative. You can hear fragments of tuning violinists, a snatch of muted Vivaldi, the dissonance of many string players trying out instruments in one space. A Far Cry seemed to “annotate” and respond to the dialogue among the quartet’s members. The second and fourth movements, both titled “Infrastructure,” were particularly conducive to the orchestral arrangement. One could hear the masses of people scrambling around on the bridge supported by this infrastructure. The third movement, though, was what made me reconsider what was happening in this concert. At first, I was irritated at having the whole orchestra playing. This movement was supposed to depict a mother and daughter dancing, a tiny, intimate interaction. What were all these people doing here? I wondered if there was another way of reading what was happening. Perhaps, instead, here was a small moment of humanity that was also part of a community. A mother and daughter, tucked away from the dangers of the world.
This idea of musical community as a healing space led me to reinterpret how I listened to Beethoven’s Quartet No. 16, Op. 135. This was the last complete piece he wrote, and the first performed on the concert. Violinist Alex Fortes of A Far Cry arranged the quartet for string orchestra. For this piece, the members of the Miró acted as section principals.
How was the experience of listening to this composition different when arranged for chamber orchestra? The late string quartets are intensely personal — almost conversations among the voices in Beethoven’s head. The composer wrote Op. 135 in 1826, over a decade after he had become completely deaf. The four voices of the quartet spun in his brain, closed off to sounds from the outside world. At moments, the intimacy of this quartet seemed violated in an orchestral setting.
However, this arrangement also encouraged great ranges in dynamics and colors. During the first movement, the low melodies were passed between cellos and bases. Segments of melodic and harmonic texture were passed between the sections. In the scherzo, the group crafted a dense undercurrent of sound, with a melody skipping gaily on top – almost like a country dance hall. With all these players the sudden interruption of the E-flats was dramatic, and the group emphasized these moments even more with a significant retard.
The third movement, though, is the heart of this piece. Four remarkably static variations make up what Beethoven originally titled a “sweet song of peace and calm.” John Largess of the Miró and A Far Cry violist Caitlin Lynch shared a long and intense moment of eye contact before beginning. Ching soon entered solo over a lush backing. With so many musicians behind him, he seemed pushed to the fore as a protagonist. The orchestra became a Greek chorus, offering commentary on the piece’s themes. And so Beethoven’s lonely song inside himself became a community, singing together.
Of all the late Beethoven string quartets, Op. 135 was an unexpected choice for a concert about loss. These quartets are full of moments of transcendent mourning – of Op. 131, Wagner reportedly asserted that it “reveals the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music.” The breathless hymnal third movement of Op. 132, “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode,” which Beethoven wrote after recovering from a painful illness, would have also seemed an obvious choice. Compared with the unearthly harmonic progressions and strange forms taken by the other late quartets, Op. 135 seems vintage, almost a throw-back to the middle or early period quartets. It’s less convoluted and decidedly less serious. And that is precisely what makes it such a fascinating choice for this concert of “loss and resurrection.” After all of the anguish, Beethoven seems to have found respite in the geometry of the musical forms he inherited.
Beethoven finds simplicity amid turmoil. Kevin Puts depicts three moments of solace. For a little over an hour, the audience was given the solace of this concert. I had almost forgotten that musical communities could be healing spaces.
Eric Fishman is an educator, writer, translator, and cellist. He is a radical elementary school teacher who also studied cello at Yale School of Music and Conservatoire de Paris.