Catalyst Quartet

By Scott MacClelland

IT’S A POLICY of Chamber Music Monterey Bay to contract visiting artists who agree to include new music on their programs. For the Catalyst Quartet, returning to Carmel five years since their last visit, that would be Diego Vega’s 12-minute string quartet of 2000, a work of high formal discipline (in the classical sense of forms) bristling with allusions and references to the folk dances of his native Colombia. (The prolific Vega now teaches composition and theory at UNLV.)

But who would have suspected an entire program of regional premieres? Catalyst’s ‘tour of South America’ included original works and arrangements for string quartet by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera. This accounted for an entertaining discovery of unfamiliar music last Saturday in Carmel, including, as it turned out, an out-and-out masterpiece, Ginastera’s Second String Quartet of 1958.

Reading their parts on iPads and using floor pedals to turn pages, the Catalyst players took special delight is exploiting a boatload of sonic techniques, some called for by the music and for sheer sport, including mutes, sul ponticello (bowing on top of the bridge to get a metallic sound), glissandos—some going down on the cello and some screeching way up high on the violin (especially in the Piazzolla)—pizzicato, knocking on the wood of their instruments and intensely skin-crawling tremolos.  

The Ginastera quartet reminded me of the precedent-setting quartets of Bartók, and not only for the Hungarian composer’s favored five-movement arch form, but for the sheer variety of invention. Here, the Argentine composer displayed a shocking, thrilling palette of effects, not just for the sake of novelty but all justified in artistically expressive terms. Alternating between fast and slow movements, the central Presto magico sizzled like the mini-fireworks of a July 4th sparkler. Annotator Kai Christiansen accurately described it as “complex, immensely difficult to perform and vividly affective.” (I would have used the word ‘effective’ but, regardless, the impact was as equally explosive as amusing.) The movements came with other descriptive clues: rustico, angoscioso (distressing), rapsodico and furioso. Like Bartók, there were folkloric references and, like Bartók, Ginastera subjugated them into his own creative genius.

Opening the show was Villa-Lobos’ First String Quartet—of 17—that the composer was forced to reconstruct after the original was lost. In doing so he added more movements, bring the total to six and a performance time of 21 minutes. Song and dance, alternatively, proved formal context. Brincadeira (a joke) was second; Saltando como um Saci (jumping like a jumping bean) was the witty final fugue.

Piazzolla’s Suite del Ángel was Catalyst’s arrangement of four movements of incidental music written originally for a 1962 play by an Argentine playwright. Besotted with the composer’s tango obsession, and imitating his bandoneón accordion, this slick piece recounted the Angel’s progress: milonga, death and resurrection. Lasting about 22 minutes, each of its movements alternated strictly tightened tango formality with relaxed seductions.

The Catalyst four answered the call for an encore with the haunting Aria from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, originally composed for soprano and cello ensemble.