Quartets Explore Modern Pathways In ‘Green’ Series

The Formalist Quartet was formed on the 100th birthday of Dmitri Shostakovich.
The Formalist Quartet was formed on the 100th birthday of Dmitri Shostakovich in 2006.
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – It’s no secret that Los Angeles has been, and is, loaded with first-rate string talent – more than enough to staff a major symphony orchestra, several excellent regional orchestras, the film and recording studios, and a plethora of string quartets. Two of the latter, at the behest of and with the curating Calder Quartet, managed to penetrate and discombobulate Walt Disney Concert Hall at the well-attended opening concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series Dec. 8.

The Calder Quartet curated the Disney Hall program.
The Calder Quartet curated the Disney Hall program. (Autumn de Wilde)

The Calder’s cohorts were the Lyris and the Formalist Quartets; all three have relatively young, bold, expert players who are passionate about new music and don’t give a hoot about any boundaries of genre that you would care to mention. Of these, the Formalist deserves special mention mainly because their name is incredibly clever. They were formed on the 100th birthday of Dmitri Shostakovich (Sep. 25, 2006), yet they have only three of the tortured Russian genius’ 15 quartets in their repertoire. Rather, they prefer to dote on the kind of avant-garde material that the authorities of the old Soviet Union would most likely have condemned as “formalist.”

Were it not for the luck of birth in the right place and time, the Formalists might have been thrown into the gulag even for something as tame and gentle as the transcription of John Cage’s “Music for Marcel Duchamp” that opened the concert. It was a fairly faithful translation of Cage’s original, with pizzicato strings imitating the plunks of the prepared piano strings and the violins droning quietly in the manner of an Indian tanpura.

The influence of Cage hung heavily over other components of the evening. The Calder had a go at a transcription of Christian Wolff’s Edges, which can be played by any number of instruments and doesn’t conform to a set time period (on Apple Music, there are five very different performances ranging from two-and-a-half to 20 minutes). It can be spare, quiet, then agitated, with the violin teetering at the top of its register, but for all of their disconnected use of extended techniques, the players created a coherent mood.

The Lyris Quartet gave a lush performance of Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4.
The Lyris Quartet gave a lush performance of Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4.

There was a dose of dada in Fluxus member and Cage acolyte George Brecht’s String Quartet, a piece that isn’t a piece in the usual sense. It is an “event score” in which the only instruction is “Shaking hands” – which is precisely what the personnel of the three quartets did, first in sequence within each group, and then all together. They even departed from the score and exchanged some hugs toward the close, but that’s allowed, I guess. Some hipsters in the audience snickered knowingly; others might have thoughtfully pondered the idea of treating everyday behavior as performance art. Fortunately, it went by quickly.

In near-complete contrast to Cagean aesthetics, Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4 (“Amazing Grace”), a plushly textured set of variations on the 18th-century hymn played with luscious fluidity by the Lyris, had a traditional unity and flow that culminated in a grand peroration. But the alert listener could still establish a link between the gamelan-like sounds of the Cage transcription and the Asian-like central variation of the Johnston.

Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet was originally recorded by the commissioning Kronos Quartet alone; they pre-recorded the second and third quartet parts and played live over the tapes. But with the energetic Calder, Lyris, and Formalist quartets grinding away at the piece onstage together, the Triple Quartet took on a new toughness and drive, closer to the original inspiration of Bartók’s Quartet No. 4, and even Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.

John Luther Adams' 'Canticles of the Sky' had its premiere.
John Luther Adams’ ‘Canticles of the Sky’ had its premiere.

Which brings us up to the present, for the quartets had two world premieres to offer that night. One was John Luther Adams’s Canticles of the Sky – as played by the Calder – a four-movement quartet that basically brings more of the same things that inhabit other Adams pieces, Become Ocean in particular. The strings rise and fall in layers of seamless, sustained masses without vibrato; the desire to immerse the listener in continuous sound is the same, but the ideas aren’t quite as potent.

The second world premiere was Tristan Perich’s Triple Quartet, in which the three foursomes were joined by an electronic score emanating from 12 speaker cones dangling from 12 mic booms.

Tristan Perich’s Triple Quartet blends acoustic and electronic elements.
Tristan Perich’s Triple Quartet blends acoustic, electronic elements.

The generally weird program notes proved to be monumentally unhelpful in telling listeners how the piece works. (One wonders whether the growth of streaming, where information pertaining to a recording is scarce, is rubbing off on concert life.) But one member of the Formalist Quartet, when cornered in the lobby afterwards, explained that each musician played to a click track, with the harmonium-like sounds from the speaker cones behind each player geared to each individual string part.

In any case, from both acoustic and electronic sources came a unified, dense, rich, minimalist tapestry that grew to almost symphonic dimensions down the stretch. I suspect that it probably didn’t matter to much of the audience how Perich’s piece worked; it only mattered that it worked, and that it went by pleasingly.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.