Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Tale of Two String Quartets

I attended a pair of concerts a couple of weeks ago by two young string quartets which were gender-inverted mirror images of each other. The Bay Area based Friction Quartet (top) has three males and one female while the Manchester, England based Elias Quartet (bottom half) has three females and one male. Both quartets featured wonderful musicians, but for sheer adventurousness in programming and virtuosic technique, the nod goes to Friction who have been amazing me since I first heard them at the SF Conservatory of Music in 2013.

The Friction Quartet (left to right above, violinist Otis Harriel, violist Taija Werbelow, cellist Doug Machiz, and violinist Kevin Rogers) have been commissioning new music, and this was "Concert 1 of Friction Premieres" where they offered two works for the first time. The concert venue was the tiny Center for New Music in the Tenderloin where we were basically in the musicians' laps, which was fun.

The first world premiere was Two Hearts, a gorgeous, two-movement work by Sarang Kim, a young Korean composer studying at UC Santa Cruz. The work incorporates Korean tuning techniques at the beginning and shades into propulsive Western minimalism in the second half. The composer could not attend the concert because of her pregnancy which is what the two hearts was referring to: "My heart has enabled me to breathe from the moment I was created. It is now breathing stronger than it ever did before to keep another heart, a smaller one, beating. The two hearts are beating for each other and sensing each other's presence for about 280 days. One day, the smaller one will be able to work without the bigger one's help, keeping a new human being breathing. This piece describes the process from the very beginning when the two begin to coexist to the last moment they start beating separately." Unlike a lot of extra-musical descriptions by composers, you could actually hear all this. A recording of the performance is already up on SoundCloud where you can listen by clicking here.

The second piece was the relatively ancient ABACISCUS by Geoffrey Gordon from 2013. The four movements are titled Circus Scene, Orpheus, Bikini Girls (the favorite of introducer Kevin Rogers above), and The Angel before St. Joachim, all based on mosaics the composer had encountered in the Mediterranean. It was interesting music (click here to check it out) but it felt rather male and assaultive after Kim's piece. I'd never thought about gender based music before, but this juxtaposition brought it unintentionally into focus.

The concluding world premiere was El Correcaminos (The Roadrunner) by Nicolas Lell Benavides, one of my favorite composers to make his way through the SF Conservatory and join the larger musical world (he's just moved to Los Angeles). It's an ambitious work depicting his home state of New Mexico through the centuries.

The detailed narratives Benavides offered in person and in the program turned out to be unnecessary because the music works on its own. From modernist frenzy in the first movement, Latino rhythms in the second, a long, still and repetitive softness in the third, and an attempt at capturing the spirit of a roadrunner in the finale, it was all sort of wonderful.

A few evenings later I heard the Elias String Quartet (left to right above violinist Sara Bitlloch, violinist Donald Grant, violist Simone van der Giessen, and cellist Marie Bitlloch) in a San Francisco Performances concert at the Herbst Theater. The printed program was upended to make more sense, with the Schumann String Quartet #1 starting off the evening in a silky, plush rendition.

The violinist Donald Grant, with the most charming Scottish accent imaginable, introduced the next work, the String Quartet #4 ("Nine Fragments") by British composer Sally Beamish which the quartet premiered last year. It was commissioned to be a musical response to the Schumann we had just heard, and Grant gave us a few instructive examples, but the piece will probably live better on its own.

After intermission, they played the piece that had attracted me in the first place, Britten's String Quartet #2, written soon after he had returned to Britain during World War Two. The Elias Quartet gave a superb performance of a real masterpiece I had never heard live before, with precision but also enough passion they could have been confused for the Friction Quartet.

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