Miró String Quartet


By Scott MacClelland

IN ITS FOURTH APPEARANCE for Chamber Music Monterey Bay, the Miró Quartet served up a fabulous feast to a hungry audience on Friday. The Miró began with one of the rare Haydn quartets in a minor key, the Opus 76, No. 2, nicknamed “Fifths” because of the way it begins. They ended the program with Schubert’s sprawling last quartet, in G Major, D 887. In between they gave the world premiere of a major new work, Five, by Texas-born Christopher Theofanidis, who was on hand for the event.

The four-movement Haydn quartet, in D Minor, has a decidedly rustic character, especially in the last two movements. The first of those, Minuetto, offers none of the genteel grace typical of the composer’s many other minuets in both chamber music and symphonies, which often convey a courtly, powdered-wig “Age of Enlightenment” character. (Think of the American founding fathers partying.) More often than not Haydn would reserve the “B” section of his minuets and scherzos for his rural, unbuttoned dances. In this case, the whole piece was countrified. That continued through the finale, whose momentum was interrupted by several pauses for air (Luftpausen, in German.) The playing was slick, smooth and precise.

Schubert’s G Major quartet is his most ambitious, on a scale with the C Major symphony and the C Major quintet, but not as popular as the “Death and the Maiden” D Minor quartet that just preceded it and which takes about 12 minutes less performance time. There is another notable difference between them. The D Minor still retains some of the composer’s youthful, cocky exuberance, while the G Major, like the two C Major pieces mentioned above, is the work of a young man staring down death with a slew of masterpieces. Program annotator Kai Christiansen wrote at length about the pervasive contrasts of light and dark, of major and minor, and the emotional intensity it contains, relieved only by the Mendelssohnian scherzo. I don’t remember when this work was last played in Carmel so it was a treat of “heavenly length” as Schumann famously described Schubert’s C Major symphony. The performance took nearly 50 minutes—like the symphony and the C Major quintet—and traced a monumental journey. All these great works, plus more, and most explicitly the last song cycle, Winterreise, are journeys. Schubert knew his end was nigh. Thanks to Miró’s heroic performance, I’m going to listen to the KUSP broadcast on Friday evening, May 15.

CMMB’s Arc of Life commission series was inspired by the video art of Bill Viola, in particular his Going Forth By Day (from which a grab is displayed above.) On a family vacation he nearly drowned in a mountain lake. He later described it as “the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen in my life,” “without fear,” and “peaceful.” His work picks up from that experience and deals with birth, life, death, human consciousness and ancient mystical traditions. (In 2004 he collaborated with Peter Sellars and Esa Pekka Salonen to stage a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which premiered in Paris the following year and, the year after, his video for it was displayed in London as LOVE/DEATH The Tristan Project.)

Going Forth By Day laid the specific groundwork for Theofanidis’ Five, to wit, the five movements of Viola’s video: Fire Birth, The Path, The Deluge, The Voyage and First Light. (A short summary video of the piece was screened, revealing how much of Viola’s work involves water.) The movements ranged from five minutes to seven minutes, for a total time of 29 minutes. The longest was the first, with a wide range of effects, including tremolos and glissandos, that started with a lot of scrubbing before a motto theme emerged that would recur elsewhere in the work. The Path followed a walking pace while the music appeared in fragments often over a drone. The Deluge was pretty hysterical. (Its visual image showed a growing cascade of water washing people down stairs from inside a two-story building until, now empty, torrents of water gushed from the upstairs windows as well.) The Voyage played out in brief episodes while its ending would reappear as the beginning of First Light, whose forward motion was full of hesitations and gestures that finally ended in pianissimo.

Theofanidis deployed the instruments in different ways, sometimes with one leader and the others together as a group. Drones would accompany duets, as between violin and viola. There was little repetition of material but enough to disclose the composer’s formal devices and, more important, a consistent ‘sound world’ or, put another way, his distinctive ‘voice.’ This is an important and challenging work that got an excellent performance; I can’t imagine that Miró isn’t about to go into a studio to record it.

A moment of levity occurred when, in the first movement, the viola popped a string and its player, John Largess, had to leave the stage. Cellist Joshua Gindele stood and announced “It’s story time,” using the brief interruption to amuse the audience with an anecdote that occurred in the quartet’s early years at a chamber music competition at Banff. Once reassembled, the quartet played the complete work from the top.