Healing Tones, with Reverence for the Old and the New

21/11/2018

Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail, Matana Roberts, Beethoven: Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Handelsman & Colin Jacobsen [violins], Nicholas Cords [viola], and Michael Nicolas [cello]), Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 16.11.2018. (HS)

Brooklyn Rider

Caroline ShawSchisma
Gabriela Lena FrankKanta Kechua #2
Reena EsmailZeher (Poison)
Matana Robertsborderlands…
Beethoven — String Quartet No.15 in A minor, Op.132

The central third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No.15 in A minor, Op.132, one of the great quarter-hours of music ever composed, inspired a project from Brooklyn Rider that couldn’t have been timelier. As smoke from California’s most devastating fire hung thickly in the air outside San Francisco’s Herbst Hall — 100 miles from the Camp Fire conflagration — new music expanded upon Beethoven’s ‘healing tones’ to offer some solace for the shocking loss of life and natural beauty.

The first half comprised short pieces commissioned for the quartet from four contemporary composers, chosen to expand on Beethoven’s stated purpose of the Molto adagio from Op.132: the healing power of music. That said, on first hearing, their ideas of ‘healing’ hew to a very different definition of the word than Beethoven’s. He wrote that Molto adagio with fervent and obvious joy, having survived a long spate of painful illnesses and able to return to the full power of his creativity. He even subtitled the movement, ‘Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart’ (‘Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode’).

Although the members of Brooklyn Rider don’t dress formally, and they pepper their programs with contemporary works, they aren’t the rock band some would describe. Their classical music chops are genuine, and their approach to this recital was thoughtful. The insightful program note on the Beethoven, in fact, was written by violist Nicholas Cords.

Though none of the new pieces quoted Beethoven directly, any compositional connections seemed to lie in the composers’ willingness to push past whatever passes as ‘normal’ music making. Beethoven certainly did that in his Op.132, one of the ‘late quartets’ that famously explored the frontiers of musical expression. Three centuries later, close attention to Op.132 still makes for a mind-bending musical encounter.

Of the four new pieces, the one that spoke most convincingly to me was Zeher (Poison) by the Indian-American Los Angeles-based composer Reena Esmail, who incorporates elements of Hindustani and Western music. But rather than settling into a steady rhythm, this one moved forward in fits and starts — a few seconds of Hindustani rhythms punctuating an eloquently stated melismatic song spun by cellist Michael Nicolas. Esmail’s generous embrace was ultimately harmonically rich and vivid.

The program opened with Schisma by New York-based singer, violinist and composer Caroline Shaw, whose penchant for direct communication showed itself in warm harmonies and gratifying melodic gestures. (The title refers to clefts in rock, a phrase that occurs in the Old Testament as a metaphor for a promise of safety from oppressors.) For Kanto Kechua #2, Gabriela Lena Frank wove melodies from her Peruvian roots into complex, dissonant and contrapuntally defiant music. In the improvisational final work, borderlands… the New York-based ‘sound artist’ Matana Roberts also struck a note of protest, expressing the composer’s anger over the politics of immigration in America.

Even after these contemporary journeys into the unfamiliar, Beethoven’s Op.132 still delivered a sense of awe at the audacity of his inventiveness. The players abetted the composer by taking a performance tradition to extra lengths. It’s not unusual to play the opening measures of the Molto adagio with little or no vibrato, lending a feel of plainsong to the heartfelt hymn. But violinists Johnny Handelsman and Colin Jacobsen eschewed vibrato as early as the slow opening measures of the first movement.

They’re not the first to do this, of course, but the resulting spectral sound quality cast a spooky light on the proceedings from the very top. After this gambit, even the slightest introduction of vibrato made more urgent passages later sound extra-rich without having to ladle on much finger movement. With Cords anchoring the mid-range — the intonation on his viola as assured as his colleagues’ — the group created breathless suspension in the slow passages.

Their gentle approach to the second movement (Allegro ma non tanto) danced gracefully in 3/4 to set up that monumental Molto adagio, lending it a sense of timelessness and inevitability. Within the slower sections, the two forays into Andante allowed some intake of breath, before the final pages built from a barely audible pianissimo to a powerful climax. It all receded seamlessly into quietude.

A sense of relief pervaded the rest of the quartet — the short march, which led to a nicely stated recitative, and finally a joyful rondo. All in all, a reverent performance.

Harvey Steiman

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