By Scott MacClelland
JOSEPH HAYDN’S String Quartet in G, Op 76, No.1—as one of six published as a set in the late 1790s—was a laugh-out-loud affair last Friday in Carmel. Only nobody laughed but me, which means I had to suppress numerous guffaws or risk annoying those around me who appeared not to get the jokes. Haydn was the greatest musical humorist in the late 18th century Classical era. (Mozart was no slouch in the wit department—think Magic Flute—but is better known for infusing his music with a dimension of deep emotion not heard since the great works of JS Bach.) In this quartet, which follows the strict rules of classical sonata forms, Haydn the trickster set up particular expectations then violated them, one after another. (Bach’s contemporary Handel was pretty good at these kinds of surprises too.) The members of the Jasper String Quartet were totally dialed in, freshly rhythmic and vividly transparent.
By contrast, Aaron Jay Kernis’ Quartet No. 3 “River,” co-commissioned by the presenting Chamber Music Monterey Bay and five other chamber music institutions, was a deeply serious piece, as is the personality of the composer. (I’ve heard a lot of his music and will venture to say that none of it is ‘fun.’) In five movements, lasting 36 minutes, it explored a wide range of effects teased out as if forensically. Ambiguous tonality and numerous meter changes challenged the audience to absorb the music on this World Premiere tour. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the composer later revises the work.) Kernis titled the movements Source, Flow/Surge, Mirrored Surface-Flux-Reflections, Cavatina, and Mouth/Estuary. The first and last featured large cello solos played by Rachel Henderson Freivogel.
Violist Sam Quintal offered spoken commentary about the Kernis before the quartet played it. He said he and his colleagues “love” it. He mentioned the use of guitar picks instead of traditional pizzicato. In places ostinato patterns repeated over and over. The long third movement was nocturnal, hinting at the influence of Bartók, with buzzing bugs and lightly touched harmonics, but which grew quite wild further along. Mutes were used in the brief Cavatina, which suggested the influence of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13. The finale, where fresh water mixes with salt water, witnessed “explosions of biodiversity.” As well as they executed it I hope the Jasper Quartet can find a way to make this work more playful, which would make it seem shorter than it is, not longer.
Meanwhile, in Claude Debussy’s early Quartet in G Minor, the Jaspers simply glowed with high polish and gorgeous tone. Dynamic contrasts were a highlight and rhythmic syncopations were crisply articulated. Here, as in the Haydn, the performance did not last long enough.
The program book said the concert was recorded for broadcast on KUSP on October 30, two weeks ago. I’m no physicist but I thought time went in only one direction.