Thursday, March 22, 2007

From Vilnius to Tucson

The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music showed that they are also the Arizona Friends of New Music this week when the Vilnius String Quartet played in Tucson. The Vilnius Quartet specializes in music from Lithuania (of which Vilnius is the capital), and brought Tucson a program where the first half was all Lithuanian composers: Ciurlionis, Balakauskas, and Rekasius. Heard of any of them? Me either. One of the discussion forums I follow on the net had a long thread this winter about composers from this part of the world, briefly mentioning Balakauskas, so I was very excited about the program, and my expectations were in every way fulfilled by the concert.

The opening piece was a fragment of a quartet in C Minor by Mikalojus Konstantinus Ciurlionis (1875-1911). The fragment consisted of three out of an original four movements (the closing fugue has been lost), a late romantic work, very pretty and genteel. The highlight for me was the second movement, marked Andante Pastorale. In the middle of the movement, over a bed of murmuring, sustained tones, the cello played a beautiful, long melody, joined at the end by the first violin who broke away from the accompanying chords and turned the solo into an ethereal duet. After a minuet and trio, the work sounded a bit unfinished without a closing movement.

Both of the pieces on the remainder of the first half were composed in the 1970s, a period of great exploration and change in classical music. The program notes namecheck most of the big names from the period (Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage, etc), but neither piece seemed terribly "difficult". Both works used extended techniques (e.g., harmonics, glissandi, col legno) and contrasting textures to maintain interest and forward motion. Certainly the textural sounds made the structural changes much more audible than in more melodic works. And I find myself more and more drawn to live performances because the visual cues provide a lot of information about the structure. In addition, our ears can easily process the sounds of the four instruments separately, yielding musical secrets that would be much more difficult to uncover from the sounds of two stereo channels. Finally, since neither work is recorded, I found an excitement and a desire to listen more intently because I wanted to absorb as much as possible of these works that I may not hear again any time soon.

The second work on the program was Osvaldus Balakauskas' second quartet, dating from 1971. According to the program notes, this quartet is a serial piece, but it didn't sound much like French or German serialism. The first of three unidentified movements almost sounded canonic, with textures starting in one instrument and being taken up at very short intervals by the others, separated only by a beat or two. The second movement went by too quickly for me to take notes, but the third movement was lough-out-loud funny, fast moving sections of contrasting textures, interrupted periodically by massive C Major chords.

The final work in the first half was Antanas Rekasius' Third Quartet, written in 1976. Although the program notes emphasized his use of aleatoric and chance operations, I heard nothing overt to support this suggestion. The score did contain some graphic notation for some of its more unusual sounds, but the work seemed focussed in a way that aleatoric music is not. The first movement, marked Largo, was a long, sustained, intense chord, where one instrument at a time changed a note, generally at the beginning of a measure. It created a slowly evolving harmony until the end of the movement, when the first violin's and cello's music changed more often, becoming a duet on either side of the slowly moving chord in the second violin and viola. The Lento second movement split the quartet into two groups, two violins and viola/cello. Each group took a turn in the lead role, but in two contrasting textures, while the other group played a very quiet, slow moving accompaniment. The movement closed with a gorgeous chord played in harmonics, so rich in overtones it almost sounded like a shortwave radio. The final Allegro was very fast, very short, and blisteringly loud (for a string quartet), a perfect conclusion to a very entertaining work.

After the intermission, the group played Ravel's Quartet in F Major, and the music returned to the appealing and dignified late romantic sound world with which it opened. This was my first time hearing this quartet, associating Ravel more with piano than chamber music. After the challenging and exciting new music in the first half, the Ravel soft and gauzy, a beautiful impressionist work to round out the concert.

I applaud the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music for its commitment to new music. The auditorium was nearly full, and the series of concerts is sold out every year (fortunately for me, subscribers do give their tickets back if they are not attending). Although the lady sitting in front of me didn't like the new music, my seat neighbor and I walked up to the stage together at intermission to look at the scores, and she seemed very open to the repertoire. The organization sponsors new compositions every year during their winter festival, and releases live recordings on (not available in iTunes or emusic at this time). The concerts are a real asset to the community, and I look forward to attending them in the years to come.

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