Presentation leaves Brooklyn audience in the dark but Clyne’s music provides illumination
As she tells it, composer Anna Clyne once made an exchange with two violinist friends: a new violin duet for violin lessons. Listening to a concert of her compositions for stringed instruments Wednesday at Roulette in Brooklyn, part of the String Theories Festival presented by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, one felt deeply grateful for the deal.
Performances by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn under artistic director Eli Spindel, the Mivos Quartet, and cellist Inbal Segev conveyed the London-born, Brooklyn-based composer’s distinctly English sensibility around string ensembles. Her essentially lyrical, occasionally forceful idiom often brought thoughts of the chaste sensuality of Vaughan Williams or the piquant poetry of Elizabethan viol music.
An unusual (and inadvertent, we were told) feature of this concert was the omission from the printed program of any titles or descriptions of the pieces being played. The audience sat literally and figuratively in the dark as the musicians came onstage, performed, and left. It became an interesting exercise in unmediated listening, experiencing the piece as itself and nothing else, uninfluenced by so much as a title.
For example, cellist Segev began the concert with a powerful solo, whose slow melody unfolded over a strong open-string drone before shattering into rapid scale passages, Bach-style string-crossing figures, and actual quotations from a Bach sonata. Electronics discreetly boosted the cellist’s rugged tone.
The question of what inspired such urgent yet nostalgic music was answered when one later learned that that the piece was one of six composed in 2009 for violin and string ensemble around the anniversary of the death of the composer’s mother, and that its title, Rest These Hands, was a line from one of the mother’s last poems. (The arrangement for solo cello dates from 2014.)
The Mivos Quartet was up next, in two Clyne works for quartet with tape. In Roulette, composed in 2007 for the Roulette performance space in SoHo with a commission from its eponymous foundation, a taped sound like a short, sharp exhalation punctuated smooth, non-vibrato counterpoint in the quartet, with synthesized voices joining in.
More marked, agitated music culminated in a fervent chorale, enhanced by hums, cackles, and very deep bass notes on tape. Clyne set all this in her characteristic harmonic environment: familiar triadic chords colored by dissonances, not modulating into other keys in the usual “functional” way but occasionally slipping sideways, giving the music an antique modal flavor.
Shadow of the Words, composed in 2011 for the quartet ETHEL, did indeed begin with words, Beaudelaire’s poem “Harmonies du soir,” read on tape by Cline’s friend and violin maker Bruno Guastalla. The amplified quartet—the cello in particular sometimes sounding like a deep organ stop—cast a “shadow” that rose up to obscure the speaking voice some of the time.
The distinctly Arabic sound of lowered seconds in this piece’s melodies may have reflected the fascination of the French poet and his contemporaries with everything from the exotic, sensual East. Drone notes and whirling dance figures grew in fury to a hot climax of dissonant sawed chords before closing on a long diminuendo.
The Mivos players—violinists Lauren Cauley, Olivia de Prato, violist Victor Lawrie and cellist Mariel Roberts—managed to play both pieces with passion and abandon while interacting seamlessly with their amplification and recorded sounds.
Tiny tendrils of muted string sound wove together in the opening pages of Within Her Arms, a 2009 work for 15 string players dedicated to the memory of the composer’s mother. Within a modest, meditative emotional range, the music explored profound feelings of loss and groping toward light, the counterpoint of its 15 individual parts recalling the rich complexities of Renaissance motets.
Conductor Spindel led the work as if conducting a chorus, without a baton and with sweeping gestures that shaped the music’s constant ebb and swell. The marriage of profound emotion with economy of means and sheer composing skill made this a piece to be reckoned with amid all musical threnodies.
The composer describes her 2012 composition Prince of Clouds as a “double concerto for two violins and string orchestra,” and it was indeed composed for two noted soloists, Jennifer Koh and her mentor Jaime Laredo. In Wednesday’s performance, however, the work came across not as a showy concerto but as a handsome, evocative piece for orchestra with two prominent solo parts.
Composing the work, Clyne wrote, “contemplating the presence of musical lineage—a family-tree of sorts that passes from generation to generation”—apparently imagined the younger violinist “imitating” the older one in both the personal and the musical senses of the word. Close imitative writing in merry-go-round canons—not without dissonance, by the way—abounded in the solo parts throughout the piece, as the orchestra swung from long, lush stacked chords to sharp outbursts to dancing in a fast, syncopated three-to-a-bar with a drum of snap pizzicatos.
Violinists de Prato and Cauley of the Mivos Quartet did full justice to the lively give-and-take of the solo parts of the piece, which was nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award in the category Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Spindel led a taut performance, moving the music forward while giving each episode its distinctive character. At the close, the composer rose from her seat and joined in the bows.
The next concert in the String Theories Festival will feature the String Orchestra of Brooklyn in a new collaborative work by three composers of the W4 New Music Collective 8 p.m. Thursday at Roulette, Brooklyn. roulette.org; 917-267-0363.