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How to Make a Musical Wink

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/07/2010 -  
Sophia Serghi: Dunes – Emoticons – Dialogues – Remembrance of Things Past – Breathless Punk

The Flux Quartet: Tom Chiu, Conrad Harns (Violins), Max Mandel (Viola), Felix Fan (Cello)

The Flux Quartet (© The Flux Quartet)

The Flux Quartet recently disclosed a secret. When asked how they got through Morton Feldman’s six-hour string quartet, one of the players replied, “The solution is to go without any solutions. For a long time before the performance.”

That’s the Flux. A combination of faultless string playing, risk-taking, humor when necessary, and the challenge of taking almost any of today’s composers and giving a hearing to an appreciative audience.

Last night, they played an evening of string quartet music by the Cypriot-American composer Sophia Serghi. I had never heard her name, but she certainly has music sheet-cred. Her commission from the European Union was impressive. (Though realizing that the Congress of Vienna commissioned Beethoven’s Battle Symphony! I’m sure she did better). She is Artist-in-Residence in Paris, Canada and Germany and teaches at William-and Mary College.

And her music? While not blatantly humorous, she evidently has a delicious and easy time writing for string quartet, especially the Flux. No four-movement profundity for her. Ms. Serghi prefers depicting text-message Emoticons. When she writes Dialogues, she deletes viola and one violin leaving the rest to show how to “tease”, “cuddle”, have a “quiet time”, and offer–in the very most significant section, “Harmony.”

In a way, we think of Strauss orchestrally depicting teaspoon or soupspoon. Ms. Serghi prefers to give the difference (in Emoticons) between a “Stare”, a “Kiss” even a “Wink.”

Those bagatelles went like clockwork. The wink was obviously a sharp downward note amidst the bustle and scurrying of the other instruments. (I, for one,, enjoyed waiting for that wink.) A “hug” had instruments intertwining, becoming closer and closer. And a “stare” far from being a truculent Noo Yawk stare (“Yoo lukin’ at me??”), was a bumptious, almost dance-like movement, as if stares were welcome.

The Flux began with three other “pictures”, these of dunes. “Akamas” is said to be the most beautiful place in Ms. Serghi’s native Cyprus, and the whole movement had Greek rhythms, non-aggressive dissonances, a feeling of the Mediterranean. “Dunes of Nordeney”, from an island in the North Sea, was a lovely lullaby, moving from one instrument to another without stopping.

Of course the Catalonia dunes had an Iberian rhythm, not very cleverly disguised with pizzicatos and little notes going from one string to another.

The Dialogues were more than bagatelles, though only two stood out. The longest was “Wanna Cudle?” (sic). The jesting title was a trick, for this was an elegant tender love song.

The last, entitled “Harmony”, was most engrossing of all. It had the slowness of a Morton Feldman, and the violin and cello double-stopped throughout the movement, going up and down different scales, intercepting each other, changing modes. While I admired Ms. Serghi’s mastery of counterpoint and her pictures of emotions and geographies, “Harmony” was the first time that I felt the music to be endearing, enigmatic, a puzzle for which she never found the solution, making it even more enchanting.

Remembrance of Things Past was relatively long, with many sections which didn’t seem thematically cohesive, and was somewhat noncontiguous. Perhaps a better explanation might have been in line.

For the final work, Breathless Punk, Ms. Serghi and the Flux presented a volatile, energetic, joyous near-romp. But Ms. Serghi had a mystery as well. Repeated twice during this, yes, breathless piece, she slipped in six of Shostakovich’s most memorable measures, the Hebraic theme from his Second Piano Trio (perhaps better known in the Eighth Quartet).

To Shostakovich, the inclusion of Jewish folk music was a moral issue, a blatant political statement. Though who knows? Maybe Sophia Serghi simply liked the tune.

One hopes she will keep her solution private. Her music is accomplished, clever and perhaps too accessible. Mysteries inevitably add a special dark allure.

Harry Rolnick



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