Fort Worth — If one was running late and arrived at Texas Christian University’s PepsiCo Recital Hall for the the Mimir Chamber Music Festival on Friday, just as the first piece began and didn’t have a program, it would be difficult to guess the name of the composer. Mentally running down the list of the ūber-romantic, the vaguely Russian sound helping some, Shostakovich would be a wild, but correct, guess. This is a very early student work produced by a callow composer in the throws of young love (unrequited, as it turned out) and it certainly sounds like it from start to finish.
It would be a while before Shostakovich would develop his own highly individualistic voice, which shines through his poly-stylistic music. In this work, Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op. 8, the 17-year-old student is trying on late romanticism, but, like an ill-fitting and slightly out of fashion suit, no amount of tailoring would help. He is taking a shy at writing in the over-ripened musical language that must have permeated his school, the Petrograd Conservatory, at the time. He summons the ghosts of composers such as Taneyev, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky.
The result is a delightful surprise and Mimir’s trio, made up of stellar players (violinist Stephen Rose, cellist Brant Taylor and pianist Alessio Bax), played it to the hilt, reveling in its romantic excesses. Bax even rose up off the piano bench to put his full weight into the big moments. While Shostakovich eschewed such dated romanticism soon after, there are hints of the composer to come in this early work such as stark contrasts and sudden shifting rhythms and tonalities, but none of the sarcasm and grotesqueries appear, which became his hallmarks.
And now for something completely different, as they say.
The American composer and violist Kenji Bunch was only two years old when Shostakovich died, but he credits that composer’s masterful Fifth Symphony as his early inspiration. In fact, you can hear that influence in his music, especially his aptly named Supermaximum for large orchestra (originally for strings).
The present piece, his Quartet No. 2, “Concussion Theory,” leans toward the opposite, as in super-minimum. This is a relatively new composition and there is scant evidence of his eclectic combination of folk, rock, improvisation, rock, jazz and whatever. Like the Shostakovich played earlier, guessing that this trio is by Bunch would be unlikely.
His subject matter is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which devastated the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies. It is a difficult subject to conjure with music alone, and this quartet would be greatly enhanced by some visuals.
The four movements are titled “No Man’s Land,” “Black Sunday,” “Concussion Theory” and “A Gentle Rain.”
Bunch uses some of his signature string techniques such as slides, harmonies, snapping pizzicato, buzzing and scratchy playing over the bridge and glassy playing over the fingerboard.
The second movement’s lovely chorale features the viola (Bunch’s instrument) and was impressively played by a new addition to Mimir, violist Joan DerHovsepian. She was joined by violinists Frank Huang and Stephen Rose and cellist Brant Taylor. Their perfect intonation gave this subtle hymn-like music its touching impact. (This would happen again in the chorale section of the Beethoven Quartet that followed after intermission). It was difficult to find the dividing line between the last two movements, but that didn’t detract from the performance.
Bunch makes effective use of some of minimalism’s well-worn devices, such as repetitions and ostinatos. His imitation of explosions, which were set off at the time in a futile attempt to make rain, is not especially effective. But later on, his musical explosion into glorious tonality brings the work to a memorable ending.
Beethoven’s late string quartets were the last compositions from the master’s pen and they have been studied, discussed, analyzed and argued about ever since. They have been dismissed as an example of a bizarrerie born by the composer’s poor health and deafness and praised as the greatest musical masterpieces ever written, or will ever be written for that matter.
His Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, is written in five movements, with no pause between the last two. It is filled with innovations, such as a triple exposition in the first movement and returning to a minuet instead of a scherzo. But the emotional highlight is the stunning chorale in the third movement. Beethoven wrote it after recovering from what he thought might be a mortal disease and he assigned a description title so that no one would miss his point: "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”). On Friday, the performance of this “holy song” became a shared a spiritual experience felt in the atmosphere of PepsiCo Hall.
(You have to love his geekish afterthought, letting us know he was using the Lydian mode.)
Huang, Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor gave this difficult, both musically and technically, quartet a definitive performance. Even most professional quartets that spend endless hours together practicing and performing would be hard pressed to match what was heard Friday.
There were three noticeable keys to this success. One was the mastery of bow techniques by all four players, especially in the flowing legato passages. These changes could be seen but not heard. Another was their careful attention to balance and the overall sound. Beethoven’s writing is frequently contrapuntal and the quartet always knew when to play out and when to blend in. Vibrato was used like a sonic seasoning: sometimes not added at all and other times released to romantic magnitudes. The third noticeable element, which permeated the entire concert, was their precise intonation.
The program was thoughtfully assembled and magnificently performed. Little wonder that Mimir draws a crowd. Most interestingly, the audience consists of both first-time concert attendees and some who go to practically everything.
» Read about this year's Mimir Chamber Music Festival here, which also has a schedule with complete repertoire.
» Read a review of Concert 1 here
» Mimir continues with concerts at 7:30 p.m. 7 and 10 in TCU's PepsiCo Recital Hall, and 2 p.m. July 5 in the Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum. On July 6 and 9, at 7:30 in PepsiCo, Mimir features emerging artist ensembles.