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[MUSIC REVIEW] Avalon Quartet in Close Encounters at Mahaiwe
Review by Seth Rogovoy

[MUSIC REVIEW] Avalon Quartet in Close Encounters at Mahaiwe
Review by Seth Rogovoy

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[MUSIC REVIEW] Avalon Quartet in Close Encounters at Mahaiwe


Avalon Quartet

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Osvaldo Golijov, Tenebrae for String Quartet
Steve Reich, Different Trains for String Quartet and Tape
Franz Schubert, String Quartet in D minor, Death and the Maiden

Review by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 7, 2011) - The Close Encounters With Music series, coming up on its 20th anniversary, scored another success on Saturday night with a program of works performed by the Avalon Quartet at the Mahaiwe that variously addressed the relationship between speech and music.

As series artistic director Yehuda Hanani pointed out in his introductory remarks - remarks that distinguish this series from the average chamber music series, provide the "close encounters," open a window onto the music for listeners, and undoubtedly account for the series' long-running popularity - there is nothing particularly new or revolutionary about the translation of human speech patterns into music by contemporary composers such as Steve Reich and Osvaldo Golijov, each of whom had works featured in the program.

Indeed, Hanani sang a bit of Beethoven based on simple word phrases, but as any Music 101 student knows, what we know call "classical music" evolved out of chant, anyway, church chant simply being the medieval update of the Temple choir songs paying tribute to the Lord. And there you have three-thousand years of music history in a few sentences.

But getting back to Saturday night's concert: the three pieces performed by the Avalon had strong if varied bases in human speech, the most obvious being Reich's Different Trains, which is always performed along with a pre-recorded tape made by the composer and the Kronos Quartet, in which phrases spoken by train conductors, Reich's childhood governess, and Holocaust survivors are used as musical elements, along with train whistles, sirens, and the Kronos itself recorded twice over, so that along with the musicians playing live - in this case the Avalon - the piece is actually being performed by three quartets.

Different Trains is as inextricably linked with Kronos as it is with Reich, not only because the quartet is heard on the tape, but because the work is also a staple of the quartet's live repertoire, and often a listener can hear the work being performed by Kronos itself (in which case Kronos is playing along to two versions of itself).

Nevertheless, hearing the work performed by a different quartet reveals subtleties that may otherwise have escaped listeners upon previous hearings. For example, Avalon's rendition of the piece on Saturday night relied less on the palpable, physical impact of the sound ordinarily put forward by Kronos - that is to say, when Kronos performs the piece, both the recording and the musicians simply are louder and more dynamic, the effect being as much that of chamber-rock as chamber music.

In Avalon's hands, and given the acoustics of the Mahaiwe, the piece was more in the realm of chamber music. What it therefore may have lacked in visceral impact - and, unfortunately, it did lack the visceral impact that ultimately is necessary to put forward the piece successfully and to its fullest effect as intended by Reich and Kronos - it gained in small but subtle ways.

For example, if the Avalon players seemed a bit timid in their responses to the taped parts - and the way the piece works, the musicians are often called upon to respond to the tape as much as to comment on it or to simply play the music as written - that did serve to emphasize the tape itself, particularly the spoken word sections, so that the music of phrases such as "one of the fastest trains," "1941, I guess it must have been," "no more school," "today they're all gone," and, most ominously, as one survivor quotes a German schoolteacher, "Black crows invaded our country many years ago, and he pointed right at me," almost became the primary element in the work as performed by Avalon.

This also may have allowed heretofore overlooked elements and strategies of Reich's brilliant, inventive, polyphonic composition to rise to the surface. For example, one of the last spoken-word phrases of the piece is "there was one girl who had a beautiful voice." Reich, thus, ends this composition which, while being about trains, war, childhood, and sound memory, on another thematic note - closing the circle and bringing it all back to music. And as my guest for the evening, who commented before the piece that he found most contemporary music to be "atonal" (a common, if misguided, gripe), concluded, there was nothing atonal about the piece at all.

In fact, Different Trains is, in its own way, as much about beauty as anything, particularly the redemptive beauty of music. And that was made even more clear by the Avalon's delicate touch itself, and by allowing that penultimate phrase about the girl's beautiful voice to have the last word.

The concert opened with Osvaldo Golijov's Tenebrae. Golijov wrote this piece in a conscious effort to evoke melismas from Couperin's Troisieme Lecon de Tenebrae, which in itself was an attempt to evoke the singing of letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. Golijov added to that an ethereal, otherworldly effect - one actually that boasted more of a Steve Reich-style minimalism than Different Trains does - with beautiful melodies floating over repetitive, oscillating figures that themselves faded in and out acoustically. At the end of the piece, Golijov planted a musical phrase built around the sound of a single, repeated name: "Jerusalem."

The playing by the Avalon - joined for the evening by substitute cellist Clancy Newman, sitting in for Cheng-Hou Lee - was conventionally gorgeous, as was its concluding rendition of Schubert's warhorse, Death and the Maiden, which takes its musical cues from a song by that name that Schubert had earlier written, consisting of a dialogue between, well, Death and a maiden.

It wasn't lost on a listener that there was some sort of meat-cultural connection made between the Schubert and the Golijov and the Reich - Chilean-Jewish playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote a dramatic work that borrowed the title of Schubert's quartet, in which the music plays a central role and motif. Golijov, like Dorfman, is a Latin American Jew. And Dorfman's play was made into a film directed by Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski, who himself has at times been portrayed as something of a deathly defiler of maidens.

But all that is extra-musical stuff. In this case, the concert itself was extraordinary enough.

Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning music critic and the editor of The Rogovoy Report.

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