The influence of folk songs, or rather folk styles of song, has a long tradition of being reinvented as formal music for the concert hall. The NOVA concert of January 12 at Libby Gardner Hall perfectly illustrated this with a set of pieces covering three different centuries and three different styles with works by Haydn and Dvorak, and a new work by contemporary composer Michael Ellison. The performance was presided over by surprisingly bearded NOVA director Jason Hardink (who joked that it wouldn’t be around for long “because my wife doesn’t like it”) and featuring the excellent Fry Street Quartet from Logan, with an interpretation of the pieces that was joyous and personal.
The contemporary audience of Haydn, indeed of many classical composers, would have recognized the influence of folk music and the familiar melodies of the village and the traveling musician in the formal music of the day—they would have heard the quotations and similarities much as we recognize references in television shows and cartoons. For us these references are often ironic, but they serve many purposes to deepen and illuminate a piece of music.
Joseph Haydn had a rough childhood, born to a musical family in an isolated village on the Hungarian border in Austria. When he was six, his parents moved him to live with his uncle, the choirmaster in a larger town nearby. He never lived with his parents again. His memory of childhood as an apprentice was largely of poverty and hunger. He sang in a traveling choir where, he remarked, he would often only be fed when he could steal off with the concert refreshments. Eventually, he was given lessons on the theory and language of music while being the valet and accompanist to a local singer. When he started writing, he was immediately successful, writing an opera called the “Limping Devil” which was popular, but was eventually censored for “offensive remarks in the text.” He was also writing for local groups, whom, he noticed would publish his freely given compositions as their own. Haydn found his way into a position on a remote estate composing for the Esterhazy family, one of the richest and most powerful families in the nobility of the Austrian empire. It was in this isolation that he re-shapes and grows both the symphony and quartet form to a sophisticated level. In the case of the quartet, the older Haydn hands off to a young Mozart, with whom he performed and admired, the inspiration for his own creations.
Considered the father of the classical symphony and the quartet, Haydn wrote, by current consensus, 69 string quartets, starting at the beginning of his career and writing in the form until his last set of works. This is one of the few places in Western art where the birth and growth of a particular art form evolves to a kind of maturity in the work of one person over a lifetime. Before Haydn, quartets were gimmicks to show the virtuosity of a particular instrument, and after his innovations, they were one of the supreme musical forms—¬what Goethe called, "a stimulating conversation between four intelligent people."
Haydn’s early quartets were written as entertainment for parties held by the Esterhazy family. They were crude, five movement affairs whose only real inventiveness is said to have been in the minuetto movements. His next set of quartets were largely like the symphonies of the day, radically more advanced than the first, and interesting to play for the musicians, which apparently was not the case of mid eighteenth century Haydn symphonies. They were nonetheless meant to be pleasant, ambient numbers for guests to talk over. His later maturing work, say around opus 20, was full enough of thought and melodic interest that it demanded the listener’s attention. No longer just party music, it was truly emotional and insightful. Here the quartet really begins as an important musical form, and Haydn’s always inventive and optimistic mind really is given a place to make a new Western language.
The quartet played for NOVA (the quartet in G Major op 77), was written after his benefactor’s death and a stay in London, where he regrouped to enjoy his artistic celebrity, following what was already a long and fruitful career. He returned to Vienna and wrote this and other ambitious pieces especially for the concert hall. It was 1795 and he was 63. In this quartet, his opening notes and approach prefigure Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony from 1805, and the second movement adagio predicts much of the musical approach of Beethoven’s late quartets. But the melodies can be traced to a Croatian folk song.
The Fry Street did a fine job on this piece, bringing a burnished cinematic quality to the music—an Autumn carriage ride through trees and past large lawns blown with golden leaves. For me there is something a bit too happy about Haydn—too easy optimism and broad wit, and I was a little caught off guard, when it was over, by the sheer good feeling that flowed along with the applause.
Following Haydn, the Michael Ellison piece set a new direction in atmosphere and tone. Commissioned jointly by NOVA and by Arizona Friends of Chamber Music for the Fry Street Quartet, his String Quartet #3, here in its second ever performance, is that rare thing in art, a great piece, both absolutely contemporary, and absolutely enjoyable, and, I would guess, even for people not acquainted with the difficult textures and ideas of current classical music. It is great American music. Even though it is international in its intentions and it is written by an American-educated fellow who teaches at the University of Bristol who is a founding member of the cross-traditional Hezarfen Ensemble in Istanbul, it feels as “now” and “America” as just about anything I’ve heard. Needless to say, but I will … I loved it. And, when NOVA gets around to putting out a disk with this and other new music, I’m getting a copy for myself.
The somewhat alarming mention of “Fiddlin” in the title of the piece left me wondering what to expect, but, to quote Michael Ellison’s notes,”while based on fiddling elements, the work is chamber music in the deepest sense, creating what (musician and critic) Hans Keller called the ‘peculiar harmonic counterpoint’ that only the string quartet can create, at times within dense or widely spread contemporary textures, while maintaining a high level of individuality between the players navigating its cultural and technical overlays with wit, energy of the “folk” and a dose of formal, mercurial audacity.”
The piece was introduced by Fry Street Quartet cellist, Anne Francis Bayless, with some overview of the melodies we should be listening for, features of sonic “discomfort” and what they were inspired by, whether Turkish stringed instruments or electric guitar feedback. She also explained how asymmetrical the composition is. Some of the eleven movements are much longer than others (one is only two bars-10 seconds long, IV. Two-Bar), many are several minutes. The influences for each piece are varied, but incorporate contemporary “folk” themes ranging from the blues of the Mississippi delta (where the composer has admittedly never been, but manages to capture very well) to ’80s glam rock. Each piece alone was a standout, but obviously also part of a collection.
As explained by the composer, this quartet is “based on the idea of ‘fiddling’ and ‘riffs’ across traditions, primarily using North American bluegrass fiddle and Turkish/Balkan kemençe styles as starting points for a work that deals with tradition, its endlessly revitalizing energy, and its integration into a contemporary, highly ‘rhythmicized’ compositional language.” He goes on to say, “With its stream-of-consciousness, multi-movement structure … this work contextualizes ‘vernacular,’ traditional string figures and ‘riffs’ within a more abstract sound world, presenting fiddling elements in some moments as a total, immediate physical presence occupying the entire quartet sound space, while at other times juxtaposing them as fragments of pastoral innocence set within a web of post-modern abstraction and illusion or memory; that is to say, at one or several steps removed from tradition.”
When the piece began in earnest, I was able to keep track for the first five movements, and then, I guess every pause was another movement, but I just didn’t feel confident that it wasn’t a pause in a movement. It was a great ride that just whipped by and ended as abruptly as if all the air had been suddenly sucked out of the room, and when it was over I suspect the whole audience, like myself, was taken by surprise. I would have given it a standing ovation, and I know my concert partner would have as well, but it sort of just whirled to a stop while we were still blown back in our seats.
One of the notable features of these pieces is the profuse use of the seventh partial harmonic: the instrument is bowed and also a finger touches the string at an interval which is not exactly mathematically correct as a subdivision that makes sweet music, but instead makes a “squeak.” A squeak, and a wheeze, as relentlessly as the music calls for. It’s kinda great, and a sound that feels very much of the moment in this context. The first movement (Vivace Minuetto) incorporates this harmonic against a more traditional fiddle kind of drone to make a rather beautiful forward backward looking hello to this new musical world. I can’t be sure, but I think it was the fifth movement (Mountain Angels) that really made me think, “This is an important piece.” It sort of rises from the fog and damp of this music all about it, music about water and strings, into an alpenglow on green hills above an Appalachian horizon. Simply modern and utterly appealing, I fully expect I will hear this movement excerpted on NPR sometime, and it will sound like “I know this from somewhere … but where?” As it turns out, you can hear the third movement (Metelik) of this quartet on Soundcloud. “Like” the Fry Street Quartet on Facebook, and you can hear them play it from the link on their page. Perhaps one reason this music can have such personal resonance, is that it is drawn from sources that strike at an American music listener with allusive familiarity. Like other great art, it feels like it has always existed, just waiting for me to discover it.
Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A major was a great ending for this trio of pieces, performed at symphony scale with the addition of Jason Hardink on piano. The unity of this seasoned Fry Street Quartet and Mr. Hardink as a group has a special flavor, particularly good at tempo and color (never too fast, with a Rembrandt hue), able to introduce air and silence particularly well into their rendition of this romantic, even chesty, piece. The first movement (allegro, ma non tanto) starts with a sweet, slow, almost adagio melody, which has its arms around you when it suddenly takes off in a truck-wide path of melody. And the second movement (Dumka: andante con moto), begins with a theme that made me inexplicably run off in my head to the movie Moulin Rouge, until I realized the familiarity in the tune I was grasping for is the song “Nature Boy,” which is Ewan McGregor’s theme in the movie and also made famous by Nat King Cole in the 1960s. But for Dvorak, it was inspired by Czech dances and rhythms, in particular, the dances called Dumka. The Dumka as a dance moves from the melancholy to the upbeat, but in this second movement, the initial “Nature Boy” theme is heard and returned to six times. Each time it is enriched. It is a long and dramatic movement, one that, if you like learning music, pays back handsomely upon multiple listenings. The third movement is another folk dance, a Furiant, which starts with a gallop and moderates back to slower dance, and then busts it out again. The fourth movement is a Polka. Folk styles all.
This season of the NOVA continues on Feb. 9 with what looks in outline to be memorable and, I hope, very surprising show. In the abstract, If I could choose only one of the NOVA shows this season, this is the one to which I would go. Entitled “Late Beethoven and The New Complexity,” it features some of the greatest later Beethoven, which is therefore some of the greatest music. Performed by Jason Hardink, whose playing is always sensitive, dynamic, and well colored, I am totally amped to hear these selections live. Combine that with new works by the daring young composer Jason Eckhardt, which are just amazing and also utterly radical. Mr. Eckhardt is one of the very finest of contemporary chamber music creators. If you don’t listen to new music, you will be disconcerted that the musical world is so much bigger than you had thought. A concert the equivalent of night bathing on a moonlit cliff, then standing up to notice off the edge, a continent’s end and a sea lit by the moon off to a horizon of sudden stars.