Tower and Turnage works for bassoon quintet given supreme advocacy at CMS

Fri May 17, 2019 at 12:38 pm
Bassoonist Peter Kozalay and the Calidore String Quartet with composers Joan Tower and Mark-Anthony Turnage post concert at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Bassoonist Peter Kolkay and the Calidore String Quartet with composers Joan Tower and Mark-Anthony Turnage following Thursday night’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert. Photo: CMSLC

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concluded the new music portion of their current season Thursday night in the Rose Studio with a focus on an instrument rarely in the spotlight: the bassoon.

Along with the viola, the bassoon is the regular butt of conservatory jokes across the country, but for many has a uniquely evocative and humane sound. 

Two composers who appreciate the instrument are Joan Tower and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Both were on hand to hear bassoonist Peter Kolkay and the Calidore String Quartet play Tower’s Red Maple and give the world premiere of Turnage’s Massarosa, a piece commissioned by Kolkay, along with the Chamber Music Society.

First up on this concise program was Wolfgang Rihm’s String Quartet No. 4. Another in the current large supply of superb young string quartets, the Calidore played this work with a raw intensity and physicality. That the performance left an ambivalent impression had nothing to do with the playing and everything to do with the composition itself.

Rihm is one of those composers who manages to be fascinating and oft-putting simultaneously. His skill is clear and impressive, and the reach and strength of his roots in the classical tradition is attractive in and of itself. Indeed Quartet No. 4 begins with, and sustains, a lot of Beethovenian emotional drama.

But his language and his style can be hard to parse. In the romantic tradition, his music follows an emotional logic and is always expressive and sincere. His nervous energy and compositional skill make his work highly mercurial. 

The first movement is built around a repeated series of aggressive pronouncements and implosions, except for a brief lyrical moment halfway through, it comes off as chaos enclosed in a very small box. The second movement and the concluding Adagio use harmonies that in a different context would be gripping, but in this quartet merely sound monochromatic and sour.

The odd acoustic of the Rose Studio is antagonistic to strings, covering the quartet with a harsh, brittle reflection, and slicing a strange division between the instruments, as if the two violins, and the cello and viola were playing in separate spaces. 

Credit goes to Turnage and Tower, each of whom showed real appreciation for the bassoon’s qualities. Their writing purposefully wove the instrument into the ensemble though such devices as sharing a theme with the violins then passing it along to the low strings.

Thursday’s concert marked the debut of Turnage’s Massarosa (named for a favorite Italian town of the composer’s).Though the middle of the three movements was a solo bassoon Intermezzo, one was struck by the deliberate chamber quality of the music—how Turnage balanced homphony, polyphony, and tutti passages to create a sense of interaction and response that is the fundamental point of small ensemble music.

Along with melodic lines throughout the range of the instrument, Turnage exploited the bassoon’s intervallic possibilities, with Kolkay tossing off high notes to float in the air about distant, solid bass tones. The outer movements of Massarosa were marked “Very tender and expressive” and “Very slow and serene,” and with Kolkay’s communicative playing and the excellent intonation of the whole group, one was drawn into the music. Each movement, and the piece as a whole, didn’t conclude so much as stop, leaving the listener wanting more.

Tower explained that Red Maple was named after the color and manufacture of the bassoon, and Kolkay himself organized its commission. Bright and lyrical, the musicians set off on Tower’s through-composed style like a boat on a river. Ranging from mournful to energetic, the music was a deep contrast with Rihm’s quartet—yet the musical and emotional logic were transparent, and winning throughout.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s season concludes 5 p.m, May Sunday, with music from Falla, Ravel, Debussy, and more.

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