Decoda Ensemble

Decoda master class

By Scott MacClelland

THE MESSAGE of the Decoda string quartet to the student musicians from Youth Music Monterey who attended their master class was ‘internalize’ the music. Eight student musicians participated at the York School chapel in Monterey on Saturday morning* ahead of Decoda’s concert as guests of Chamber Music Monterey Bay that evening in Carmel. (Both organizations sponsored the master class.)

CMMB’s audience is as fiercely dedicated to chamber music as the presenting institution itself. Its music director, Erica Horn—a professional clarinetist who will perform with Ensemble Monterey next week in Carmel and Santa Cruz—carries on that tradition from emerita Amy Anderson, who, among other important achievements, established the inclusion of new music in each of CMMB’s concert programs.

In Decoda’s case that was David Bruce’s dandy Gumboots, a two-part, 25-minute dance suite composed in 2008 which the composer describes as “an abstract celebration.” However that comment comes after his explanation: “Gumboot Dancing…was born out of the brutal labour conditions in South Africa under Apartheid, in which black miners were chained together and wore Gumboots (wellington boots) while they worked in the flooded gold mines, because it was cheaper for the owners to supply the boots than to drain the floodwater from the mine. Apparently slapping the boots and chains was used by the workers as a form of communication which was otherwise banned in the mine, and this later developed into a form of dance.” The first part, “tender and slow moving, at times yearning,” was followed by “five ever-more-lively ‘gumboot dances’, often joyful and always vital.” Smart thing Bruce chose not to title it Clarinet Quintet.

The show opened with Schubert’s so-called Quartet in D Minor, D703, an early—1820—stranded single movement that contains, according to annotator Kai Christiansen, “shifts in theme and mood [that] are accompanied by unusual and affecting key changes, producing music that is a vividly charged amalgam of restlessness and serenity.” Here the Decoda four set the technical bar that would carry the evening. Their reading was all physical mercury, skittering and slithering with no shortage of explosive surprises in its twists and turns.

If Gumboots got the audience to its feet, Brahms’ autumnal Clarinet Quintet in B Minor of 1891 set a far more circumspect mood. The great composer’s personal life was as haunted with heartbreak and disappointment as his public life was filled with triumphs. We can thank both for the expressive personality that cuts through his astonishing craftsmanship. Here, as in the Bruce piece, we must mention and credit Decoda’s clarinetist—playing through the miserable flu—Carol McGonnell. Like Richard Mühlfeld, the Meiningen clarinetist who inspired Brahms to come out of retirement, she is and was the soul of the piece. No matter its other three movements, the Adagio haunts the entire piece; it’s wistful, resigned, really quite sad.

*PICTURED: Decoda violinist Owen Dalby coaches, from left, Elizabeth Mendoza, Isadora Flores, pianist Jasmine Mitchell and Omar Diaz. Dalby also had the young quartet sing the main theme of Mahler’s single-movement Quartet in A Minor in order to get them to internalize the minor key character of the music. When Decoda violinist Anna Elashvili coached violinists Megan Tang and Michelle Vu in Miklos Rozsa’s Sonata for two violins, she got the whole room to stomp the rustic Hungarian rhythm to fire up the young musicians.