Brilliant ‘Sundial’ Etches A Resonant Arc Across An Intimate Experience

Samuel Carl Adams wrote ‘Sundial’ for the Baumer String Quartet.

DALLAS — Composer Samuel Carl Adams’ chamber work Sundial is a testament to the importance of staying in touch with friends from middle school.

Adams was in Dallas for the Baumer String Quartet’s June 3 performance of Sundial, and the composer noted in his preconcert remarks that he had gone to middle school with three of the four members of the quartet.

As it happened, Adams was one of only two boys in his middle-school class of eight at Berkeley’s Crowden School. The other boy was Nathan Olson, now co-concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and violinist in the Baumer String Quartet. The other Baumer violinist, Aaron Requiro, and his cellist brother David also attended Crowden, a school that required two hours of daily music instruction. (The fourth quartet member is violist John T. Posadas.) Adams said he was “over the moon” about working with his former classmates for the first time.

Sundial, completed in 2021, was jointly commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and was written for the Baumer String Quartet. In March, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed Sundial twice, and the Dallas premiere was only the work’s third performance. The piece is scored for string quartet and percussion, and the June 3 performance was particularly intimate: The audience sat on the stage and in the choral terrace of Dallas’ Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, just feet away from the performers. This intimacy, combined with the superb resonance of the hall, allowed the quartet and selected members of the DSO to wrap the audience in sound that was both musically and psychologically enhanced by the setting.

Indeed, the sound quality of the performance space is particularly important to Adams. In a June 1 interview, he described himself as “a composer…continually fascinated with resonance…and how space affects how we listen.” In fact, he said, Sundial is an “unbroken, fifteen-minute exploration of resonance.” Throughout the piece, the strings and percussion perform similar material and function as resonators for each other. Adams intensifies differences in timbre by scoring strings with metallic percussion instruments — vibraphone, crotales, and Almglocken. According to Adams, the Almglocken (orchestral cowbells) sound slightly out of tune and, with the other percussion, provide a “rippling, mesmerizing” effect.

The Baumer String Quartet performed Samuel Carl Adams’ ‘Sundial’ June 3 under the auspices of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

In his program notes, Adams states that, like a sundial, the piece is a “series of musical shadows that, unbroken, reveal the passage of time in the shape of an inverted arc.” During most of the piece, what Adams calls “rocking music — fast, pulsing dual harmonies that sway back and forth” pairs with “cyclic music — slightly off-kilter contrapuntal figurations that blossom over long stretches of time.” Thus, as he noted in the interview, the piece alternates an undulating shadow world with a world of musical brightness.

Adams also noted that the instrumentation of Sundial is part of a long tradition of combining string quartet with one additional instrument. He cites, for example, Mozart’s A-major Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, and Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, written for two violins, one viola, and two cellos.

For the Dallas premiere, the Baumer String Quartet was joined by DSO principal percussionist George Nickson. Throughout, all five musicians played with the precision and rhythmic vitality required for an effective performance of the piece.

Sundial opened with an underlying pulse in the strings which was echoed by the bright percussion. The music was highly accessible and almost tonal. It was also difficult: In order to properly highlight Adams’ exploration of resonance, the players had to allow sufficient time for the audience to absorb the reverberating acoustic effects without allowing the resonances to decay.

A more dissonant, darker section featured counterpoint between strings and percussion, as well as within the string parts themselves. Later in the piece, Adams used cello glissandi, lengthening note values, and contrasting dynamics to continuously build layers of sound. A repeating rhythmic idea in the strings began to sound almost Romantic, and when the vibraphone reentered, it functioned as an accompanying pulse underlining the strings.

In his program notes, Adams describes the final section as “intensely bright,” and certainly it was. In fact — at least during the June 3 performance — the sounds of the metallic percussion were so loud and so high that, in such an intimate space, listening became physically uncomfortable.

Nathan Olson is co-concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony and violinist in the Baumer String Quartet. (Photo by Sylvia Elzafon)

Although Sundial was written during the pandemic, Adams emphasizes a happier correlation: The piece was composed during the first four months of his son’s life. He noted in the interview that when listening to the work now, he hears “precariousness” and “fragility.” The nonstop composition also gives Adams a “sense of breathlessness.”

Also on the program was Leon Kirchner’s Flutings for Paula, written in 2006 for flutist Paula Robison. The Dallas Symphony’s principal flute, David Buck, joined percussionist Nickson in the five-minute piece. Once again, Nickson proved to be master of the percussion bank, punctuating the flute part with instruments that included bass drum, wood blocks, gong, and xylophone. The piece would not be classified as easy listening, but the expertise of the two performers seemed to charm the audience.

The more substantial Mendelssohn String Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, completed the program. DSO co-concertmaster, Baumer String Quartet member, and former Adams classmate Nathan Olson introduced the octet, noting that it was written when Mendelssohn was 16. Mendelssohn was a true prodigy, he said, and the assured composing in the Op. 20 Octet puts “young Mozart to shame.”

The Octet is written for two pairs of violins and one pair each of violas and cellos. Numerous performances replace the second cello with contrabass, and, in the Dallas performance, DSO bassist Brian Perry followed that practice. In general, the bass blended beautifully with the ensemble. The finale, however, opens with a cello solo, and here the double bass timbre seemed too heavy for the jubilant music. Nonetheless, the Baumer String Quartet, Perry, and additional DSO players — violinists Filip Fenrych and Giyeon Yoon and violist Christine Hwang — kept the music energetic and the sound rich.