Cheung’s “All Roads” premiere sparks a heady Lincoln Chamber new music program

Fri Jan 18, 2019 at 1:56 pm
The Escher Quartet tackled William Bolcom, Per Nørgård, Ed Bennett and Anthony Cheung's "All Roads" on Thursday at Rose Studio. Photo: Sarah Skinner

The Escher Quartet tackled William Bolcom, Per Nørgård, Ed Bennett and Anthony Cheung’s “All Roads” on Thursday at Rose Studio. Photo: Sarah Skinner

It was Billy Strayhorn to the rescue on a night when even Billy Bolcom was a hard nut to crack.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s early-evening New Music concert Thursday in the Rose Studio, featuring pianist Gilles Vonsattel and the Escher String Quartet, began as an enigma wrapped in a dissonance: a heady string quartet by Per Nørgård followed by ear-challenging pieces by William Bolcom and Ed Bennett.

It fell to Anthony Cheung and his All Roads for piano quintet to close the intermission-less concert with the longest piece of all. In remarks from the stage, the composer disclosed that the piece lasted “twenty-five minutes, so brace yourselves.”

And indeed, All Roads — a Chamber Music Society co-commission composed for the five artists who played it Thursday — proved just as tightly-written, brainy, and groundbreaking as the pieces that preceded it. It was also — at less than a year old, and having the world premiere of its revised version that night — the only truly new music on the program. (The other pieces dated from 2007 back to 1997.)

But for all its intellectual heft, this piece also had a secret collaborator: a certain elegant composer named Strayhorn, whose classic song “Lotus Blossom” not only provided the recurring, transforming theme of All Roads but seemed to imbue the whole piece with its sumptuous melancholy, even in the fast parts.

Not that a piece like Nørgård’s String Quartet No. 10, “Høsttidløs,” lacked moods — the one-movement work seemed to have dozens of them, fleeting and unpredictable. In fact, one could imagine a performance that gave these contrasts a higher profile than the Escher Quartet did Thursday evening. The very capable Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um on violins, Pierre LaPointe on viola, and Brook Speltz on cello were perhaps being careful not to overplay in the close confines of the Rose Studio. In any case, they sounded very tuned-in to what was happening at every moment in this eventful piece.

The piece’s subtitle is the name of a flower, called autumn crocus in English, although the composer prefers the word’s literal translation: harvest-timeless. This image of precisely-timed events coexisting with the eternal was helpful to a first-time listener — certainly more so than the allusions to “infinity rows” and “tone lakes,” two exotic features of Nørgård’s composing technique, in the concert’s program notes.

And whatever its innovations of form and harmony, Nørgård’s writing had a “quartetty” feel that would have been familiar to Haydn or Brahms, characterized by the sensual pleasure of string tone, individually or blended, and close dialogue among the instruments.

Violinist Um and cellist Speltz had no problem with playing at full volume in Bolcom’s Suite for Violin and Cello, a robust, atonal item modeled more on Baroque music than on the rags and cabaret songs this composer is known for. There was, however, a touch of tango in the big and little gestures of the movement that followed the free-form opening “Prelude.”

The duo captured the ever-changing moods of the central slow movement, amid tempo fluctuations and dramatic surges, and the scherzo-like fourth movement was a brief flurry of pizzicato and harmonics.

Body rhythms returned in the last movement, “Street dances,” inspired (the composer wrote) by break dancing. This activity could be considered an urban rite of spring, and there was certainly a touch of Stravinsky in the syncopations, before the music swelled to resemble a boombox on an asphalt playground (well, almost).

Pianist Vonsattel made his bow for the evening with a mad rush of notes up the keyboard to open Ed Bennett’s For Marcel Dzama for piano, violin, cello and electronics. Violinist Barnett-Hart and cellist Speltz responded pianissimo, joined by faint electronic clicks and pops, and the back-and-forth dynamic of the whole piece was established.

Inspired by the bizarre folk art of the rural Canadian artist named in the title, the Northern Irish composer created music of ever-increasing urgency, culminating in massive jazz chords from the piano and slashing string responses, with electronic pops and chirps driving it all like a tambourine.

A sudden, tense pianissimo was just the calm before a renewed storm of fierce dissonances and Bartókian rhythms, and then, just as suddenly, the music went up in smoke. What did it all mean?  Ask Mr. Dzama — but the musical virtuosity and commitment of Vonsattel, Barnett-Hart and Speltz were never in doubt.

Composer-pianist Cheung introduced All Roads verbally and also played a few lines of Strayhorn’s song. His musical illustration was a treat but quite unnecessary, as the founding tune sang out from the piano in the opening bars, and echoes of it — pulled apart or back together — were woven throughout the work’s eight movements. An early title of “Lotus Blossom” was “All Roads Lead Back to You,” and a sensation of roaming and returning was the piece’s defining feature.

Cheung actually re-mapped that journey in the revised version of All Roads that he unveiled Thursday night, its sequence of movements reshuffled with transitions rewritten. In the expressive arc of the refigured piece, one could hardly imagine the movements following any other order than that of (as the titles had it) “Forking Paths,” “Circuitous Routes (Winding Passacaglias),” “Estuary,” and “Convergence.”

In these four main movements and four reflective “detours,” the players laid out, from beginning to end: a searching exposition; a contrapuntal development with Strayhorn’s theme as the “ground” of the passacaglia-style variations; a looking-back recapitulation with big piano chords sending the strings on flights of glissando fantasy; and a vigorous coda celebrating the return home.

Pianist Vonsattel, perhaps channeling Strayhorn’s collaborator Duke Ellington, often used a stylish, percussive jazz touch to project melodies and chords, but could also summon a velvety Bill Evans sound when needed. The Escher Quartet matched him with focused, characterful playing. Far from tedious, the piece’s 25 minutes seemed to fly by, putting an upbeat conclusion on a challenging evening of chamber music.

Pianist Gilles Vonsattel, violinists Sean Lee and Kristin Lee, violist Matthew Lipman and cellist David Requiro perform works of Janáček, Dvořák, and Korngold 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday January 24 in the Rose Studio.; 212-875-5788.

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