Manhattan Quartet brings a New York state of mind to wide-ranging program

Thu Apr 17, 2014 at 12:11 pm
The Manhattan String Quartet performed at the xx Institute Wednesday night. Photo: Christian Steiner

The Manhattan String Quartet performed at the Tenri Cultural Institute Wednesday night. Photo: Christian Steiner

Concerts like that which the Manhattan String Quartet presented at the Tenri Cultural Institute Wednesday night are a valuable reminder that New York City is dense with excellent musicians, capable of playing any piece of music as well as can be heard. The vagaries of the market, luck and the hunger for promotion seem to be the only substantial dividing line between groups like this and the most famous string quartets. The event was part of the League of Composer/International Society for Contemporary Music’s current season.

The Manhattan Quartet—violinists Curtis Macomber and Calvin Wiersma, John Dexter on viola and cellist Chris Finckel—is forty-four years old, with a distinguished career playing the best of 20th century music—including a fine recording of the complete Shostakovich quartets. For the last few years they have been in residence at the Sarajevo Chamber Music Festival, from which the two most recent works on this program came: Eric Moe’s The Salt of Broken Tears and Craig Walsh’s Quartet.

Both American composers, Moe and Walsh have each collaborated with the quartet in Sarajevo, and both men incorporate the traditional Bosnian vocal style of ganga into their pieces. (Ganga is a style in which two voices work in essentially quarter-tone harmony, briefly touching on a tonic before separating again.)

Moe’s approach was to write a lyrically melancholy work that, as it comes to a close, works in the tune of an anthemic Sarajevan song, “Kad ja podoh na Bebasu.” His arrangement is nicely understated, and the piece overall is attractive to the ear, but the organization is on the lax side, atypical for this composer. There are many threads and promising fragments that just wander off and disappear, and the piece might seem more compact if it were longer but more tightly composed.

Walsh’s Quartet is ingenious and powerful. His music digs more deeply into its Balkan elements and to more exciting effect. After an opening movement, “With Whirling Vigor,” that sets a propulsive tone, the slower, middle section, “Freely,” is built around the ganga style. The violins play an achingly vocalized melodic line over sliding, rocking, double-stops in the viola and cello. The astringent quality of the close tuning in all the instruments is strikingly beautiful because of the harmonic tension between the notes. The finale, “Lively, dancing,” is a medley of four types of dances, and it flies by with explosive vigor. Walsh’s Quartet may well be a 21st-century classic.

The rest of the program was what the group calls “20th century classics”: Webern’s Five Pieces, Op. 5, Dutilleux’s Ainsi la Nuit and Three Pieces by Stravinsky. The Manhattan Quartet played each of these exceptionally well, the only glitch a slight waver at the start of the Dutilleux quartet, second on the program. But they arighted themselves almost immediately and played with strength.

This group has an attractive, unique corporate, sound with dark hues and enough of a fiddler’s touch to give them what is generally thought of as an Old World feel. To this, add the precision and intensity common to American string quartets, and the result is something special. In Webern’s precisely hewn miniatures, their ability to play with exact intonation, to move quickly from arco to pizzicato, from loud to soft, and to play with a Viennese lilt in the few long phrases created an excellent performance.

The standard approach to Dutilleux’s piece is to go heavy on the atmosphere, to emphasize the gauzy aesthetic that comes out of Debussy. But that misses the muscularity in Debussy and in Dutilleux, and while Ainsi la nuit is full of evocative connecting tissue, the core of the composition is a forceful pentatonic scale. The composer sets that in alternating downward and upward motion, and it drives the piece through time.

The Manhattan Quartet played with great color, including a gorgeous flautando sound. They also played with a distinctive, refreshing robustness, highlighting the central organization of the piece and creating a special sensation of surging organic growth. Nothing could be more Debussyian, or Dutilleuvian.

Stravinsky’s Three Pieces are compact, punchy, brilliant. On the page they look like a set of invigorating exercises, but they are also a distillation of the things that make Stravinsky a titan in so miniature masterpieces. The music has the weird, devilish sound typical of the brief period between The Rite of Spring and Pulcinella, and violinist Wiersma emphasized this in his solo on the G string in the first movement.

The second movement sounds very much like an adaptation of bits of Rite, but highly abstracted. The slow finale is haunting and strange—a stone-faced sequence of chords interrupted by the simplest, minor key cadence, like a glimpse of waking normality in the middle of a nightmare. The weight and commitment from the musicians was outstanding.

The League of Composers/ICSM season continues 7:30 p.m. May 10 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music.

One Response to “Manhattan Quartet brings a New York state of mind to wide-ranging program”

  1. Posted Apr 18, 2014 at 11:53 am by John Dexter

    Dear Mr. Grella,

    I hope it isn’t breaking some professional protocol by saying to you that I appreciated your review of our concert; but not just because you enjoyed the concert and said so. Much more important to me is this: It is gratifying to read a review, good or bad, that comes from someone not only knowledgable about the music heard, but from someone who can state in cogent terms WHY you enjoyed the concert. Thank you for taking your time to attend our concert and to write about it.

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