An Exaltation of Larks
W. A. Mozart: String Quartet in F major, K. 590
Jennifer Higdon: An Exaltation of Larks
Robert Schumann: String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41 (“Prussian No. 3”)
The Tokyo String Quartet: Martin Beaver (violin), Kikuei Ikeda (violin), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Clive Greensmith (cello)
“An Exaltation of Larks” is the title of Jennifer Higdon’s new piece, commissioned for the Tokyo String Quartet last year. But this remarkable title also serves perfectly to describe the entire afternoon with the Tokyo Quartet. Ms. Higdon’s program notes began with some definitions. “Larks,” she explains, are “any of numerous singing birds.” “Exaltation” is “An act of exalting; the state of being exalted; an excessively intensified sense of wellbeing, power, importance, an increase in degree or intensity.” A group of larks is known as, “An exaltation.” In more ways than one, the Tokyo String Quartet gave us “An Exaltation of Larks” that afternoon.
The new Samueli Theater, designed by architect Cesar Pelli and acoustician Russell Johnson, made a beautiful, intimate gathering place for these harmonious larks. This small flexible, multi-use space seats a maximum of 500. It occupies the back corner of the building that houses the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The entrance to Samueli Theater is at the rear of the building, clad in massive rectilinear limestone and surmounted by frosted and etched glass panels. The simple exterior takes its cue from the graceful stainless steel office tower across the plaza, also designed by Cesar Pelli and known as one of the best buildings in the county.
The interior of the theater is an exact shoebox, filled with comfortable modernist armchairs on the floor, on risers in front of a moveable raised stage and on a single balcony lining two sides and the back of the hall. There were no seats beneath the balcony, but there was occasionally a little noise from the movement of the chairs. The walls are made of rough-hewn concrete block in an unusual speckled dark brown, partly faced with maple panels. The 35 to 40-foot ceiling has exposed ductwork painted an eggshell blue and an extensive theatrical lighting grid. Large elegant teardrop shaped houselights of frosted glass hang down into the warm, perfectly reverberant space. The room would be even more attractive set up as cabaret space with café tables. Unfortunately, there was a low mechanical rumble possibly from the air conditioning system that was audible during any pause in the performance, when both the players and the audience were silent. This regrettable defect is common to many halls, particularly those designed to suit several purposes.
Samueli Theater was only about two-thirds full when the Tokyo Quartet began with Mozart, in a relaxed, confident mood. In the first movement the ensemble immediately seemed to be guided by a single mind, a joyful integrated entity with one glorious voice. The second movement begins with all the instruments playing together; then the first violin breaks out into a melody that is shortly passed around to the others. In those quick short notes their sensitivity to each other was extremely delicate. This delicacy makes an interesting contrast to a more robust interpretation, such as the classic recording by the Quartetto Italiano. The balance of power among the players was egalitarian, with the two founding players, Kikuei Ikeda on second violin and Kazuhide Isomura on viola, seeming to exert as much influence as the first violin and cello. Part way through the song-full third movement, the fire alarm went off. Happily, we were back inside within fifteen minutes and the quartet in their mandarin collar shirts was unperturbed. Someone in the audience murmured, “what remarkable sang-froid.”
As they were about to begin, the first violinist remarked, “I hope this doesn’t mean we have to play faster…” Lark-like, their bows bounced off the strings through the third movement and into the sprightly, faster finale. In the last movement the melody would stop on a dime, like a sparrow lighting upon a branch, and then instantly leap forward again. It was the warble of furiously magic flutes, not angry but overflowing with vitality.
Next, Jennifer Higdon’s 14-minute piece in one movement, “An Exaltation of Larks,” was commissioned for the Tokyo String Quartet in 2005. There were more than 200 performances of the young composer’s works last year, particularly the orchestral piece “blue cathedral.” The string quartet opens with a high, shrill call in the violins and viola. Then the cello joins in, ever strident, as the furious warbling descends into the midrange. This rich, accessible contemporary quartet allows us to see and hear the larks, but not quite literally, not like Messiaen’s transcriptions of birdsong. Hints of discord accent more traditional harmonies with piercing top notes in the violins, a little like Hindemith. But the soulful singing melodies are also not so far from Mozart, with chirruping trills often disrupted by short slow moments and full stops. The occasional metallic and stony tonalities resolve into warm tones, with the first violin ascending into the air in luxurious melody. When the second violin takes the tune, the first screeches out its comments on high. The piece ends with the cello singing in gorgeous fury.
The intensely romantic opening sigh of Schumann’s “Third Prussian” quartet was uttered by the Tokyo Quartet’s single mind and voice. Their spirit was unreservedly unified in the bouncing, exquisitely measured melody of the first movement. In the second movement, “assai agitato,” the first violin and cello led the agitation, impatiently telling a sad story. Their furious alacrity was a delight. Sailing out of the storm into a calm sea at the end of the movement was even more beautiful. The adagio, accessible but mysterious, featured the dark romantic viola and slow perfect pizzicatti from the cello. The last movement completed the architecture with a stunning finale, the crescendo formed as if by one mind. The audience erupted with shouts of bravo and a standing ovation. I overheard, “Schumann must be smiling.” As an encore, they gave us the heart-stopping chase of the final movement of Haydn’s Quartet, “The Rider.” Gasps, more bravos, everyone standing, a little girl in the front row was jumping up and down with glee.
Thomas Aujero Small