Tuesday, December 22, 2015

November 7, 2009: Ravel welcomes you

I have often heard Maurice Ravel's F major string quartet as the centerpiece or conclusion of a recital, but last night was the first time I heard it introduce the program.  The occasion was a performance by the Picasso Quartet (violinists Alisa Rose and Natasha Makhijani, violist Alexa Beattie, and cellist Michelle Kwon) at the Berkeley Piano Club under the egis of the Club's Emerging Artists Fund.  The Quartet was formed in March of 2008;  so a nit-picker might argue that they have already "emerged" (and probably wonder what a string quartet is doing at a piano club).  However, it would be fair to say that the Quartet is still in the process of finding its voice and building a repertoire to suit that voice;  and it is important that there are philanthropic sources to support these early stages of development.

Ravel's quartet tends to be one of the fundamentals in any string quartet's repertoire, but the Picasso demonstrated that it is an excellent way to begin a performance by an ensemble that is probably new to most of the members of the audience.  Its four movements range across a wide variety of moods, but it begins with a gesture that can easily be taken as warm and welcoming.  Having almost politely invited the listener's attention, the music proceeds to present the ensemble with a broad range of opportunities for solo voices, "conversational" counterpoint, harmonic agreement, and auditory exploration of the sonic potential of the instruments, taken both individually and in combinations.  It allows the ensemble to say, as it were, "This is what we are, and this is what we do" with just the right combination of virtuosic display and "straight talk."

If there were a few problems with intonation in the Picasso performance of this quartet, those problems quickly receded behind an overall recognition of the expository opportunities that the music provides.  Ravel may best be known for his orchestration skills, but it is not often recognized that those skills are just as necessary for chamber music.  He has a keen understanding of how to work with a palette that may be small in size but almost unlimited in the diversity of sounds that each of the component instruments can produce.  While other composers may structure their climaxes around harmonic or contrapuntal resolutions, Ravel's climaxes are often cued by a "color shift;"  and the Picasso's sensitivity to what I like to call "the sound itself" made these climaxes particularly effective.  Having thus secured a rhetorical strategy for establishing the moments of priority, the ensemble could then lead the listener through the large and the small of Ravel's overall architecture, demonstrating an ability to bring freshness to one of the most familiar string quartets.

The Picasso String Quartet was actually formed to present the premiere of a string quartet that David Garner completed in 2008.  This was the second work on last night's program, and Garner was present to provide some introductory remarks.  Most important was his observation that the work was "about" conflict, which he reinforced with a sort of laundry list of the different musical resources that could be engaged to represent conflict.  There is, of course, nothing new in conflict as an underlying concept.  The twelve violin concertos of Antonio Vivaldi published as his Opus 8 were assigned a title implying a "contest" between harmony and invention;  and just about every subsequent composer of note has addressed the problem of when resources work against each other and when they unite in purpose.

Fortunately, Garner could see that there are always new ways to approach such an old problem;  and he had some clever ways of seasoning his own pursuits with dashes of wit to entice the listener and then maintain attention.  Indeed, in the overall scope of music history, Garner may be the first string quartet composer comfortable with a skillful sense of wit since Béla Bartók.  Even in the third, Pomposo, movement, whose tempo marking almost telegraphs Dmitri Shostakovich's proclivity for martial gestures viewed through a jaundiced eye, it is an appreciation of Bartók's (often concealed) capacity for playfulness the moderates the overall structure.

This is a quartet with much to say, and one cannot expect to keep up with all of it on a first exposure.  However, the Picasso was offered this as "their" string quartet;  and their personal embrace of it greatly facilitates negotiating its wealth of ideas while, at the same time, whetting the appetite for further listening opportunities.  One could do far worse than chase after every opportunity to hear this ensemble if it also leads to further acquaintance with Garner's composition.

Having focused on both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for the first half of the program, the Picasso reverted to the nineteenth after the intermission.  They performed Felix Mendelssohn's final complete string quartet, his Opus 80 in F minor.  I have suggested in the past that Mendelssohn's music can be sensitive to the context in which it is presented, citing, as an example, how his early Opus 13 quartet could be easily "overwhelmed" in the wake of Franz Schubert at his most passionate.  Last night Mendelssohn had no problems at all with context.  This voice was clearly differentiated from those that would follow in subsequent centuries;  and, while he was so prolific in his Allegro writing that there is a tendency to lump it all together as one pile of "busy work," the Picasso performed his Allegro movements with a sense of urgency that made it clear that this was not music to be "lumped together" with anything else.  Furthermore, the final Allegro molto concludes with one of those flourishes that provides the perfect rhetorical approach to concluding an entire recital program.  So, if part of that process of "emergence" is, as I suggested, the ability of the ensemble to "find its voice," then the "emergence" of the Picasso Quartet is definitely off to a good start;  and we should all be eager to keep track of how their journey proceeds.

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