Dateline: Soundings: New Music at the Nasher is known for being at the forefront of new music in Dallas. The contemporary, the avant-garde, the unexpected: audiences can find it here. Ensembles from the Vermont-based chamber music incubator Yellow Barn have been featured this season. Friday’s offering included the Parker Quartet, Harvard University’s quartet-in-residence, in collaboration with percussionist Ian Rosenbaum. Playing for more than two and a half hours to a full house of about 200, the group performed a carefully curated program emphasizing microtonal music, consisting of works by Webern, Berio, Tan Dun and others.
But first, let’s talk about the Beethoven.
Amidst a wide variety of avant-garde music from the past hundred years, the quartet performed Beethoven’s Op. 133 Grösse Fuge. In some ways, it was the weirdest thing on the program. In fact, it may be one of the strangest—and most magnificent—pieces of music ever written. At the time of its first performance, in 1826, one contemporary publication deemed it “a confusion of Babel.” Almost two centuries later, Beethoven’s Great Fugue still seems mysterious and perhaps even inaccessible. And it manages this transformative musical radicalism within the confines of traditional Western pitches and without special effects.
Originally intended as the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, the fugue was so off-putting to its original listeners that Beethoven’s friend Karl Holz, at the behest of Beethoven’s publisher, persuaded Beethoven to publish it separately, and write a new final movement for the Op. 130 quartet. Beethoven did so, writing a much more conventional final movement for the quartet.
The Grösse Fuge is dauntingly difficult for even the most seasoned performers. The outstanding artistry and impeccable technique of the Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong and Ying Xue, violin; Jessica Bodner, viola; and Kee-Hyun Kim, cello) belied the challenges in this piece.
The modern and contemporary works that comprised the remainder of the program were well-chosen; it’s just that, given the length of the program, there were rather too many of them. Still, although a handful of audience members left at intermission, the remaining crowd’s enthusiastic response at the end of the performance demonstrated no impatience at the long evening.
As listeners arrived at the Nasher, we were told that we would need to wait outside until the performance began, that we were part of the performance. As we entered the hall, we heard a recorded piece by Jonathan Harvey circa 1980, “Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco” for eight-track tape. The sounds heard are the tenor bell at Winchester Cathedral in England and the voice of the composer’s young son. Cathedral bells, because they use intervals not always based on the Western semi-tone, or half step, are inherently microtonal, so this piece prepared listeners for the range of pieces that followed.
The fourth of Anton Webern’s six very brief Bagatelles for quartet was followed immediately by Tan Dun’s Eight Colors for String Quartet. This piece, as with some others in the evening’s program, relies heavily on the many special effects bowed string players can produce—scrapings, sliding glissandi, percussive sounds with the hand on the body or fingerboard of the instrument, harmonics, the snapping “Bartók pizzicato,” and so forth. While the Parker Quartet’s execution of these techniques was skilled, including impeccably synchronized pizzicato and percussive effects, the overall impression was one of a novelty piece, not one that will brook many hearings.
Likewise, the announced centerpiece of the evening, James Wood’s Déploration sur la mort de Gérard Grisey, which added the percussionist Ian Rosenbaum to the mix. Rosenbaum, on marimba, showed himself to be an astute and observant chamber music collaborator while producing a near-meditative effect by the end of the piece. Again, too strong an emphasis on special effects in the strings, including ricochet col legno, playing with the wood of the bow, distracted from the message of the piece. However, the quartet’s playing was again admirable.
The final piece on the program, Frederic Rzewski’s “To the Earth” was a solo turn by percussionist Rosenbaum for suspended clay flowerpots and voice. While kneeling onstage playing the clay pots, again a microtonal instrument rather like a more prosaic version of cathedral bells, Rosenbaum simultaneously recited a text, homage to planet Earth and Mother Nature. The effect was mesmerizing.
While not all the pieces on the program were equally appealing, the program was curated with an impressive ear for detail—even the recorded music played at intermission, from Jeff Beck to Radiohead, was selected for its microtonal elements. And the playing by the Parker Quartet and percussionist Ian Rosenbaum was truly virtuosic.