NOVA Chamber Series: Stravinsky, Bach, Mozart @ Libby Gardner 02.12

Posted February 17, 2012 in

NOVA Director Jason Hardink. Photo: Mikel Covey
This concert started with both Stranvinsky and Bach string quartets parceled out in movements and served up like wine and cheese at a tasting. A fun and daring Nova Chamber Concert, Jason Hardink’s imaginative programing delighted a responsive crowd on a drizzly and cold afternoon. The second half of the program featured a classically rare ensemble--a viola quintet--playing with uncommon loveliness Mozart’s Quintet in C Major, a performance which drew a spontaneous standing ovation. This art-filled city has a lot of things to brag about, and the Nova Chamber Music Concert series is certainly one of them.

Today’s quartet included Kathryn Eberle and David Porter on violin, Roberta Zalkind on viola, and on a particularly fine sounding cello: Pegsoon Whang. Brant Bayless played with the quartet to fill out the quintet in the second half of the show. These guys were really intense when the music called for it, as in the Stravinsky, and were in control when the notes could easily fly out of control, as in some of the fast Bach fugues. In the spaces between these dissimilar movements, the quartet seemed to change, as an actress might change her face when going into character. For me, my whole sense of the musicians and even the hall changed as the composers were played and then put aside and then played again..

The Bach was lovely and I enjoyed it, but as I have found lately, I generally enjoy twentieth century music as a live experience more than classical. However, when I listen to recordings, most of my listening is still to the old masters.

Igor Stravinsky wrote in several different musical styles during his career. The pieces: three early compositions, Three Pieces For String Quartet, which are, like his early work in general, revolutionary in use of key, rhythm and melody. They prefigure in part the uber-modern ballet Petruchka, but also use some of the ideas that would make musical modernism so shocking. The fourth piece, entitled Concertino is from a later, neoclassical period of his life, when his writing started from traditional forms and was inspired on great earlier composers - in this case Bach. His music as a rule is spare, uses simple short melodies, and seems reserved while beneath, waiting, longing and loneliness swim in dark oceans. Like T.S. Eliot, or Picasso, Stravinsky is one of the artistic giants of the twentieth century. His compositional style widely influenced other composers and changed the direction of classical music. Another composer whose influence also changed the direction of classical music is Bach.

Bach is a Titan. And the Art of the Fugue is among the most ambitious of Bach’s large-scale projects, each of the fugues in the series start with the same simple melody and then grow in different ways as the fugue extends. In this way, one can imagine them as fractals, geodes or even pearls, each larger object starting with a simple repeatable source, ending in a uniquely beautiful thing. These pieces were written out as scores, each of the four voices taking one line on the musical page, but they were meant to be played on piano with just two hands, unlike Bach’s chamber pieces which cannot be played on a piano as written. So, today’s presentation of these as string quartets was a rare treat. The last of these Contrapunctus XIX is the only one of the series that uses a different melody and different structure, and though it feels larger than the preceding fugues, it is incomplete.

So the show went from The Art of The Fugue pieces Contrapunctus I, followed by the Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet - Dance, the Contrapunctus VII, and Eccentric, Contrapunctus IX, then Canticle, Contrapunctus X, the stand alone piece Concertino and then Contrapunctus XIX.

The Three Pieces for String Quartet by Stravinsky was most memorable for me. In Dance a bright violin plays a Slavic dance in a major key over dissonant, manic, churning wail. The construction of Eccentric, featuring the new rhythm that would become Petrushka, like its name, it seems to have a melodic wobble--a fugue, if you will, like a planet circling a sun--faster then slower, farther away then nearer--but as music and melody. Most memorably, Canticle, which is a darkly hallucinogenic sound poem. The mood in the room changed when the piece started. It seemed that the light in the room turned yellow, and the smell of spider webs and desolate wind licked my skin. A hugely impressive piece in its time, it so impressed Amy Lowell that she wrote a poem cycle following the three movements in her book Men, Women, and Ghosts. Now each of these wild pieces seemed to use the Bach as tonic, or incitement to consider the greatness of variety in similar things, until the final work, which was Bach.

The final statement of this remarkable conversation, the Bach entitled Contrapunctus XIX, was curiously the opposite of Canticle. J.S.Bach’s son suggests on the score for this piece that the author died during its composition. It just ends, where Bach supposedly died while writing it. This is especially remarkable, as the music here is so rousing and body lightening in its swirling grandeur, that I found myself just staring at the ceiling as it played, and the ceiling seemed almost vertigo-like to extend up and away. And then, with one timely sneeze from the audience like an unfortunate salute, it was done. But as this piece ends unfinished and suddenly, the audience sat silently, a little high and lost in the music which had stopped, until the bows left the strings and we were reassured that the trip was over.

The second half of the show was a lively performance of the Mozart Quintet in C Major K.515. A viola quintet, thus two violins, two violas and one cello. The first viola in this particular piece really gets to lead in a way not commonly found in chamber music from this period. This particular piece’s opening Allegro is the longest first movement of any sonata from a piece before Beethoven, taking fifteen minutes to play. It is a tour-de-force of 19th Century grandeur--a fluid, building melody which sounds like the soundtrack for an enamelled white carriage and horses touring the promenade of a chateau, thoroughly re-examined in a beautiful set of variations. The third movement, the andante was particularly spirited with a prominent viola part, which really turned my head. On the drive home we differed on whether the interplay between the viola and the violin was an argument or a dance. It was a dialogue in language about a conversation in music, and this too, brought a smile to my face.
NOVA Director Jason Hardink. Photo: Mikel Covey Photo: Mikel Covey