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I Hear America Stringing

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
01/23/2009 -  
Charles Ives: String Quartet No. 1
Kevin Puts: Credo (New York premiere)
Antonín Dvorák: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major (“American”), Opus 96

Miró Quartet: David Ching, Sandy Yamamoto (Violins), John Largess (Viola), Joshua Gindele (Cello)

The Miró Quartet (© Faustinus Deraet)

Carnegie Hall went to the American heartland last night. The main hall produced an opera singer hailing from Prairie Village, Kansas. Weill Recital Hall brought forth four musicians who had met in Ohio, performing a Yankee string quartet, a pictorial piece from a Texas composer, a Czech composer who was inspired by folk songs from the south and tunes from a village in Iowa. Finally, an encore showed us a New York-born son of German-Jewish immigrants.

These were no four ordinary string players. The Miró Quartet have been working as an ensemble for 13 years, since graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, and their awards, teaching positions and international recitals have been duly praised for good reason. The group has not only four fine players (with an extraordinary first violin in David Ching), but their repertoire is top-class. True, they still seem to be collegiate, with a spoken presentation “introducing” Charles Ives to a New York audience, but their playing was always sharp, incisive, and sometimes even moving.

Their opening Ives hardly needed explanations, since this was Ives the student. Yes, the maverick Yale student, but one who understood his counterpoint—almost academically—and quartet embracing songs, marches and, above all, hymn tunes, were like simple exercises for the four players. Ives’ opening fugue is almost exactly the same as the orchestrated version of the Fourth Symphony except the end. Here, the movement finishes normally. In the orchestra, Ives adds a bit of New England chutzpah quoting from “Joy To The World”. The Miró players took no chances in their playing, and one wonders how Ives would have regarded their strait-jacket performance of this movement.

But wonders were to come. A jolly enough Allegro which parodied the endless Beethoven climaxes—played so squarely that nobody in the audience even smiled, and an absolutely beautiful cello hymn solo underneath the ensemble in the otherwise Brahmsian ending.

The Miró commissioned Texas-New York composer Kevin Puts for, what he called, “the lighter side of America.” Mr. Puts confessed in the program that these last years the “stubborn…arrogant” government made lightness virtually impossible. But he found radiance in a stringed instrument repair shop, in a mother teaching dancing to her child, and to the architecture of Pittsburgh.

The result was an eclectic charmer whose 37 minutes seemed half that length. One might fault the Steve Reich-style buzz of the “architecture” or the Roy Harris-style ending, and Mr. Puts himself quoted from many other pieces in his “dance” work. But this was no pastiche. It was a tender, fast-moving always imaginative work played with the style which Mr. Puts had created for this group.

After the intermission, Antonín Dvorák’s “American” quartet was given an impressive enough reading in the first pointed first movement and the cheery scherzo. But the group showed some extraordinary passion in the lento and some forceful bright consonances of color in the finale.

The Miró Quartet is, yes, a fine, conscientious and musically first-rate group, but one wonders whether such excellent playing might branch into something a bit less….well, less constrained. Their encore would have to be American, and I imagined them getting peripherally funky with a Kronos-Jimi Hendrix. No such luck. They played an arrangement of Jerome Kern songs, which were inspired, lyrical, lovely and just a wee bit too consciously dignified.

Harry Rolnick



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