Amernet Quartet provides energetic advocacy for new American works

Fri Sep 25, 2015 at 11:53 am
The Amernet String Quartet performed Thursday night at Merkin Hall.

The Amernet String Quartet performed Thursday night at Merkin Hall.

The Amernet String Quartet played a fine concert at Bargemusic in August of last year, and made a welcome return to New York Thursday night. Ensemble in residence at Florida International University in Miami, the Amernet brought their warm, grainy ensemble sound to Merkin Hall, along with a handful of new and recent string quartets written by American composers.

The Amernet has recently changed their second violinist, replacing Marcia Littley with Tomas Cotik, and as a group they sound fuller and more cohesive than before. They also play with a noticeably greater amount of energy.

This was a fundamental key to the success of the concert, because when the music was at its best, it demanded great energy, and when the music wasn’t as strong, the quartet had the concentration and musical passion to keep the line moving forward, although with occasional intonation problems from Cotik and first violinist Misha Vitenson.

The Amernet played four string quartets from three different composers; Mathew Fuerst’s First and Second Quartets (the latter a New York premiere), the world premiere of Alex Freeman’s String Quartet No. 1, and Daniel Ott’s String Quartet No. 2.

Fuerst’s music stood out for its focus, direct communication, and force. Each of his quartets opens explosively: with hammered, syncopated dissonant chords reminiscent of John Adams’ Harmonielehre in String Quartet No. 1, and a gripping frenzy of rising arpeggios to begin Quartet No. 2. From there, each goes in the same direction, from high dynamics and energy to quieter and sparser music.

The energy of the openings was like an announcement, and the discipline of form and structure that followed was impressive. Fuerst gets a lot out of simple sectional contrasts, and where the First Quartet builds a satisfying form alternating strong and soft music, the Second Quartet does the same, but in a better, more convincing way. Bolder, more confident, more colorful, the internal shape of the Second is also more exciting. After the opening, the music describes a cone, with the small, quiet point at the left expanding to the right into a involving mass of sound and activity.

Before each half, the composers spoke from the stage about some of the details of their work; the common theme was the restrictions each chose to organize their works. Fuerst talked about how he used formal restrictions to guide him, while Freeman and Ott mentioned stylistic ones. The differences in quality between the pieces hinged on forms; Fuerst’s were rigorous and successful, Freeman’s and Ott’s were vague at times, which made their music more uneven.

Freeman wrote his piece so that non-professionals could play it. The quality of amateur string quartets must be high these days, because his quartet was full of technical challenges: fast group figurations, tricky cross-rhythms, unexpected intervals. At one point cellist Jason Calloway played harmonics while whistling.

The music has the classic mid–20th century American sound of spacious brightness over solid rhythms, colored by a naive Romanticism. It’s full of good moments, but the drawback is that there’s no clear direction, the music tends to wander from one idea to another. The Amernet took substantial initiative in driving the piece all the way to the end.

Ott’s quartet ups the ante with an old-fashioned narrative sense of romanticism, inspired by the dual tragedies of the death of Franz Liszt’s son Daniel and of Gustav Mahler’s daughter Maria. Ott deliberately reached into the past to make music that begins in darkness and ends in light. The three movements of the quartet are centered around two odes, one for Daniel, one for Maria. The emotional distance between the two is substantial; Daniel’s is haunted and tragic, while Maria’s–with judicious use of the opening notes of Mahler’s Adagietto–is sad but comforting. The piece concludes with Stravinskyian brightness, and there is a surprisingly exuberant Scherzo that presages the ode to Maria.

While the music has a clear form and sturdy structure, it moves back and forth between a feeling of free flowing and a sense of being overly programmed. At times it gives us Ott’s thoughts, at others it fills in plot elements with a dutiful determination to get to the next part of a complex, preconceived narrative.

The Amernet played the piece throughout with a commitment to the music’s journey, ushering in the emotional sunrise with the brilliantly played Scherzo. Violist Michael Klotz in particular used his big, dark, beautiful sound to uncover a substantial yet nuanced depth of meaning.

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