Dover String Quartet

By Scott MacClelland

IF THERE WERE a classical music Mount Rushmore with only four places available, one of them undoubtedly would be reserved for Franz Schubert’s Quintet in C for string quartet and one additional cello. Completed in 1828, the last year in the life of the 31-year-old genius, it contains the narrative of an unquenchable spirit that refuses to “go gentle into that good night.” But it doesn’t deny the inevitable, witness the eerie ‘voice from beyond the grave’ that takes center stage in that great work’s otherwise diabolical scherzo movement.

As part of the Curtis Institute’s “Curtis on Tour” season, the Dover String Quartet (pictured) and cellist Brook Speltz performed the Schubert quintet by video for friends (and other ticket buyers) of Chamber Music Monterey Bay on Saturday evening. Their reading was excellent as were the video and audio quality. The program opened with the recently completed (2018) quintet for the same complement by American composer Richard Danielpour. Or rather, it followed an interview with the composer by CMMB presenter Kai Christiansen on the subject of his work, titled A Shattered Vessel. “I wanted to write a piece that reflected many of the same issues that are in the Schubert quintet—vulnerability, loss, and an immense appreciation for life itself in the face of our mortality,” Danielpour wrote in notes prepared for publication. (For the record, his quintet was co-commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music with Music from Angel Fire [lead commissioner], Chamber Music Monterey Bay, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, and Linton Chamber Music. The piece is dedicated to violinist Ida Kavafian who convinced the composer that the time had come for him to make good on the idea he’d had 30 years earlier.)

The influence of Schubert and Beethoven is readily at hand in the work, as are the quick movements in the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel. The opening movement, “Things Fall Apart,” was all crisis and struggle, occasionally gasping for air. The second, “Harvest of Sorrows,” delivered a love song without words, a consoling underscored by tremolos. The dancing third, “The Healing Fields,” tossed mottoes from instrument to instrument. At 12 minutes, the final fourth movement, “Homeward,” takes up fully half the work’s performance time. This is all tonal, harmonic music lavished with expressive melody of a traditional bent.

During the interview Danielpour said that he experienced a foreboding that “something terrible was about to happen” that would make us aware of our vulnerability. As the conversation arrived at the fourth movement, Christiansen guessed that there was something of the “Dankgesang eines Genesenen” prayerful slow movement from Beethoven’s Op 132 string quartet. Danielpour, obviously flattered, said, “Precisely!”

Schubert’s quintet is for all time. Danielpour’s is, at least now, for our time. It is too rich a score to have a short shelf-life even while it is more retrospective than, say, the contemporary music one typically hears at the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz. But that by itself will appeal greatly to many Cabrillo patrons I’ve heard from in recent years. Sadly, Danielpour was scheduled to appear as composer-in- residence at Cabrillo twice, but was a no-show both times.

Considering Matthew Shepard

By Roger Emanuels

THE STORY OF MATTHEW SHEPARD, the gay young man tortured and left to die in the Wyoming countryside has been told in books, film, poetry, song, stage play, television and documentaries. A musical production, Considering Matthew Shepard, is now playing at the Crocker Theater at Cabrillo College. It’s a recent work for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, composed by Craig Hella Johnson and premiered in 2016. Often referred to as an oratorio, it is usually performed in concert. The Cabrillo Music and Theater Arts Departments have taken on the work by adding costumes, acting and scenery in a stunning production by Cheryl Anderson, music director and Joseph Ribeiro, stage director.

A cast of 51 singers is a lot of people to move about and still keep the singing tight. Movement is minimal, never static, but just enough to create and maintain a fluid landscape. These local folks of the mountain region dress in their everyday work clothes and interact with pleasantries. Even as they were spread over the width of the stage, the chorus sound was clean, unified and resonant. There is plenty of fine solo and ensemble singing too. Johnson’s score contains music weaved from a variety of musical sources. The opening cowboy song sets the scene. Later, a jazz vocal quartet is performed with just the right pizazz. Other references are to popular music with even a hint of African rhythm.

Composed in three sections, Prologue, Passion and Epilogue, Johnson shapes the work similar to the Passion oratorios composed by JS Bach in the 18th century. The play opens with Bach’s Prelude in C Major. A Lutheran hymn, common in Bach’s music, comes at the end. The Passions tell about the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Through Johnson’s choices of texts, he creates a work of suffering, death and redemption. The texts are from Lesléa Newman, Hildegard of Bingen and Gabriela Mistral, among others.

The scene on stage is in the countryside near Laramie, Wyoming, a field where Matthew was left to die. Scenic designer Skip Epperson created a minimal set that allows endless variation with lighting. A meandering split rail fence becomes Matthew’s place of crucifixion. At one point, the fence rises up and closes into a circle, suggesting the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. The only other object, except for a few boxes and bales of hay, is a blob of a cloud on the back wall. Later in the play the blob lowers and becomes the distant hills, enhanced by ever changing lighting choices. It is visually stunning and believable. Three songs use words from the fence where Matthew was tied and tortured, “I held him all night long, I cradled him like a mother.”

In the “Stars” piece, Matthew’s father makes a statement to the court after the tragedy. The lighting effects, evoking a night sky throughout the theater, were beautiful. The instrumental ensemble of strings, clarinet, guitar and piano enhanced the vocal lines. Some lovely piano solos, played by Leah Zumberge, connected the scenes.

Following the story of this 100-minute work is a challenge, and benefits greatly from reading the libretto in advance. It is easily available online through a search. The supertitles provided were minimally useful and varied in quality of projection. Much of the time they were not readable from my seat.

The music progresses gently throughout the two acts. In melody and harmony it is very attractive music, seldom approaching avant-garde techniques, with just enough piquant dissonances to give a fresh sound. It is mostly gentle, soothing music that belies the underlying drama of the story. As I was unable to read enough of the supertitles in the first half, too much of the narrative impact passed me by.

On a dramatic level, Considering Matthew Shepard is a powerful work with a strong emotional punch. As music director Cheryl Anderson says, “It is a timely story and one that encourages us to reawaken our love for the appreciation of one another beyond the boundaries of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender definition, economic background or age. It invites us to take a stand for love, forgiveness, understanding, and justice.”

There is much to enjoy in this production. Cheryl Anderson and Joseph Ribeiro have created a musical stage work of great beauty with wonderful singing.