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Both Sides Now

New York
Alice Tully Hall
02/12/2003 -  
Franz Schubert: Quartetsatz, D703
Antonin Dvorak: Quartet Op. 96
George Crumb: Black Angels

Miro String Quartet
Daniel Ching and Sandy Yamamoto (violins)
John Largess (viola)
Joshua Gindele (cello)

“…or end up on the discount rack
like another can of beans…”

Billy Joel

In the modern world, it seems fairly safe to state, the nation which inspires the most passionate opinions from the most diverse range of peoples is the United States. Musically speaking, two diametrically opposed views of this larger than life land were on display at Alice Tully Hall as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the Miro String Quartet.

No one has ever captured the exuberance of the American experience as well as the Bohemian Antonin Dvorak. Like Edgard Varese in the next century, he expounded eloquently the European perspective that this was the locus of the lost dream, a chance to try again to establish a fertile utopia, nourishing for both body and spirit. In a good performance of the F Major quartet, one feels this spirit in one’s heart and toes, the rhythms so infectious as to make the most leaden psyche buoyant. In a great performance, such as was turned in by the Miro last evening, the only question left to debate is which is the greater slow movement, that of the kindred “viola” quintet or the lento of this present work.

Certainly while listening to the expertly blended sound of this ensemble, it is easy to weigh in on the side of the “American”. The Miro have crafted and nurtured a beautiful sonority over time, lighter and airier than many of their peers, but exquisitely engineered to allow for total clarity of individual voice while not sacrificing luxuriant totality. The entire Dvorak was first rate (as was the Schubert curtain raiser), but special mention must go to that second movement, its delicate construction a perfect edifice from which to launch strongly phrased but yet diaphanous wisps of melody, reaching the back of the hall on the wings of butterflies. The lump in my throat, missing for such a long time now, was back as a reminder of the excellence of these performers.

The obverse of the same American silver dollar is George Crumb’s Black Angels. The composer himself has bemoaned the fate of this piece, typecast as the quintessential anti-Vietnam war opus of the avant-garde. He feels that it should stand on its own merits, divorced from geopolitical and nostalgic considerations, and he is absolutely correct about this; unfortunately sometimes the contextual aroma lingers even after a long immersion in the unguents of time. Mr. Crumb can thank his good angels that such a committed group as the Miro (who, in a bizarre twist of fate, all currently teach at Kent State) has championed the 1970 opus, learning it under his tutelage and recording it under his supervision.

The work employs Bartók’s arch, most prominent in the structure of his Quartets Nos. 2 & 5, the three points of the frame labeled threnody (compare Penderecki’s piece about Hiroshima). The instrumentalists must not only realize a very difficult electronically altered set of parts, but must also double as vocalists, percussionists and even anthropomorphic levers in a breathing glass harmonica (although there are only four performers, I counted eleven set-up people toiling away during the interval). The resulting execution was both flawless and emotive, even if the composition cannot escape a certain dated quality. Like Janacek in Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 or the Shostakovich of the 11th Symphony, Crumb is striving to express timeless thoughts while describing specific events. Will his effort ultimately survive as a statement of anguish or merely an historical curiosity? Let’s revisit in about twenty years.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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