Oct 062011

Traveling the world is satisfying, but no more so than journeys of the mind. The musical voyage I took with the Chiara Quartet was a trip worth savoring.

The Chiara Quartet. Blodgett Chamber Music Series at Harvard University, September 30.

By Anthony J. Palmer.

The Chiara Quartet — tour guides for a journey through your musical consciousnes

Traveling the world is satisfying, but no more so than journeys of the mind. The one I traveled on September 30 with the Chiara Quartet was a journey of the musical mind par excellence.

We began in New England, a curmudgeonly place, with Charles Ives’s Quartet Number 1. Young Charles grew up on church music of the Protestant variety, and this early work called upon his roots in hymnody to illustrate the sturdiness of his forbears in church, music, and the bitter New England winters.

The budding, 22-year-old, Ivesian temperament showed itself early. Content to relax his audience with somewhat traditional harmonies in the first movement, he began to venture forth with deviations that played well on last Friday evening but must have raised some eyebrows when the work played for a church group in 1896.

The Chiara Quartet paid sufficient homage to the work by treating it as a mature composition. While the first violin is the nominal leader of a quartet, I felt a unity of performance as each contributed equally to the musical fabric. Excellent in phrasing balance and expression, the Chiara rendition was a version Ives would have relished.

A brief respite and I found myself in a parallel universe, raised to a different level of consciousness.

Although Richard Beaudoin’s Etude d’un prelude X — Second String Quartet (2009) was based on Martha Argerich’s 1975 recording of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, it ranged as far from the model as possible. The Chopin, subjected to “painstaking analysis” (according to the program note), was only faintly comprehended. And here I must depart from the analysis given, apparently, by the composer. Measuring the “timing of each sound event at the level of the millisecond” is not heard in detail in the music. Moreover, the musicians were probably incapable of such minute detection. For the general listener, it is only of esoteric interest what the composer did in the construction of his work. But even for the trained listener experiencing music is highly subjective, and technical language does little to enrich the rewards.

What was outstanding about the Beaudoin work was its penchant for establishing an otherworldly mood. The first movement, full of echo patterns among the quartet, kept me in a state of anticipation throughout. At any moment, the question “where do we go from here?” was a legitimate response to the layering of sounds, and whether it was a matter of a hundredth of a second or a millisecond seemed not to matter. Music is subjective; music is participatory. Don’t clutter my mind with esoterica while I’m fully engaged emotionally.

The next three movements were likewise marked by the Chopin hovering in the background, though only by dint of forcing a recall of the original prelude heard hundreds of times before. Each movement took additional cues from external sources: a Glenn Brown painting for the second movement, a distorted photo by Kertész for the third movement, and a reorganization of the Chopin prelude, none of which truly mattered. The final question is whether 38 minutes of an outstanding performance from the Chiara Quartet was enough to keep the mind and spirit engaged. For me, it was.

The trip from Planet X back was a joyful return to familiar terra firma with Brahms’s second quartet in A Minor. The evening closed with an early work of Brahms when he was still mired in a Bachian world of canons, inverted canons, retrogrades, inverted retrogrades, double canons, and the like, a rich foreshadowing of the Viennese school of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, where technique such as this fully occupied their approach to composition. Brahms never recovered from his classical roots but did develop a more recognizable Romantic soul, not by abandoning structure but by layering a solid foundation on which to build his more subjective edifice.

The Chiara Quartet built a sensitive foundation out of its superb renditions of Ives, Beaudoin, and Brahms.


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