By Scott MacClelland
WHEN ON TOUR, the Miró String Quartet typically play a series of one-night stands, as was the case just before and after their concert for Chamber Music Monterey Bay. Such a pace certainly keeps their edge sharp, as witnessed Saturday at Sunset Center. This was Miró’s fourth appearance for the Carmel-based presenter and it included a 10th anniversary reprise of the world premiere of Kevin Puts’ Credo, a CMMB commission.
How much this mattered was articulated by cellist Joshua Gindele, a Miró founder, who said from the stage that he and his colleagues perform it nearly every season, that it had become synonymous with their artistic identity. Lasting just 20 minutes, it packs a powerful punch told in highly personal terms by its composer who, as the five titles suggest, took inspiration from the time and events of its composition.
Puts is an American composer of abundant talent who, like a fine actor, inhabits the character of each new project and plays out newly minted ideas in an almost-improvisational style—which is probably the best formula for keeping his music ever-fresh. The movements, titled The Violin Guru of Katonah (inspired by a luthier in a semi-rural suburb of New York City) gives the first violin snippets from Bach and Sibelius, Infrastructure (a rhythmically charged portrait of industrial Pittsburgh), Intermezzo (an impression of a mother teaching her daughter to dance, as Puts witnessed through their Manhattan apartment window), a reprise of Infrastructure, and Credo, an achingly beautiful, bittersweet finale of floating melodies and conflicted harmonies.
Puts continually manages to strike a balance with his original voice, familiar rhetorical touchstones and fresh ideas. His improvisational gift keeps you wondering how he knows when to change direction and guessing when he knows to fold his hand.
That, of course, could also apply to Beethoven, whose Quartet in B-flat, Op 130, was presented in its original version ending with the Grosse Fuge that his publisher at the time thought overpowered the rest. (Beethoven demurred, writing a new finale, leaving the Fuge as a stand-alone piece, Op 133.) But Beethoven was right the first time. In his late works for instruments, he was no less architect than musician, ‘improvising’ from moment to moment. Except for one full stop in the middle, the six movements are played without pause. The Fuge remains one of the most beguiling and perplexing of all Beethoven movements; hopefully it will forever remain that way. Yes, you recognize the fugal subjects (plural) but would be hard-pressed to say whence in time such a magnificent tangle came. The entire performance, with its contrasting huge and tiny utterances, clocked in at 48 minutes. For sheer polish and authority, it could not be faulted, though to my taste a broader-pace in the Fuge would have achieved greater gravitas.
Miró opened the evening with five selections from Cypresses by Antonín Dvořák, music the composer arranged from a collection of songs inspired by his first love, the sister of his future wife. (On her death, while he was composing the great Cello Concerto in A, he incorporated her favorite among all of his songs in the second movement.) The name Cypresses came from a collection of lyric poems by Gustav Pfleger. Dvořák recycled the music here and elsewhere lovingly. Though rarely heard, the string quartet versions are probably the best known. Miró played them with warmth, sensitive phrasing and subtle dynamics.