The Jasper Quartet in Portland
30 October 2011
I had the privilege of attending the performance of the Jasper String Quartet at the Reed College Kaul Auditorium this evening. This concert was part of the Chamber Music Northwest 2011-2012 Encore Series, and included performance of the following:
● Barber String Quartet, Op. 11 (1938)
● Kernis String Quartet No. 1, “musica celestis” (1990)
● Schubert String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, “Death and the Maiden”
It was a real treat to hear two twentieth century quartets performed live by a vital ensemble that really invested a feeling of liveliness into music that, if we paused to reflect on the popular reputation of art music of the twentieth century, ought to be academic and distant. This music, given a sensitive and comprehending performance, reveals itself as poignant and as direct as that of any genre or any age.
Barber’s quartet is best known for the second movement, which Barber himself also separately arranged as the Adagio for Strings for chamber orchestra. During a pause in the second movement, when the entire hall was as still as a tomb, I heard a woman behind me quietly say, “Amazing!” And it was amazing.
Listening to the Jasper Quartet perform the piece by Barber, and mindful of the reputation of twentieth century art music (as mentioned above), I was reminded of another aesthetic experience earlier in my life. When I was in Frankfurt in 1991 I visited an art museum focused on modern art. This museum no longer exists in the form that I saw it, since it has since been moved to a new building and has expanded its collection. What struck me about these modern paintings I saw in Frankfurt was really how unmodern they were — that is to say, how traditional they were, how steeped they were, how deeply immersed they were, in the tradition of European painting. If you see paintings like this in a book of art hsitory, you see what looks like a field of plain color, or some such abstract form. Up close, they were nothing like this at all. The seemingly plain fields of color were textured and infinitely varied in detail.
Barber’s quartet struck me in a similar way: while recognizably “modern,” it is deeply immersed in the traditions of Western music, and it projects a texture that speaks of the long history of which it is a particular expression. An aesthetic experience such as I had in Frankfurt put me on notice relatively early in my life of the importance of seeing works of art with one’s own eyes and not relying too heavily on reproductions, however good the quality of the reproduction. Similar concerns hold for music: it is important to see and to hear music performed if one is going to arrive at a proper appreciation of it.
The second work performed, Kernis String Quartet No. 1, “musica celestis,” dates from fifty years after the Barber quartet, and is the work of a living contemporary. Sam Quintal of the quartet gave a short talk about the piece before they commenced its performance, having the violins and the cello perform bits of the melody so that the audience could listen for these recognizable parts in what turned out to be a highly compressed and dense musical texture.
Mr. Quintal prepared the audience for the complexity and difficulty of this work, but to use these words doesn’t nearly come close to doing the work justice. If you speak of “difficult” art music someone might think of Shostakovitch, and if you speak of “complex” art music someone might think of, say, Elliott Carter or Brian Ferneyhough. Mentioning Shostakovitch reminds me of an anecdote. I once heard an interview with a performer in a string quartet, and this performer talked about the feeling of tension that built while performing works of Shostakovitch, and that after performing the Shostakovitch that they would follow it with Ravel’s quartet, which in this context had a feeling of release, relief, and catharsis.
Well, the Kernis string quartet had much more in common with the vital and breezy quality of Ravel than with the plethora of notes one might expect from, say, Elliott Carter. And while its complexity rivaled the “new complexity” of Brian Ferneyhough, it was never complexity for complexity’s sake: every note of the music was musically justified. One could even say that every note was lyrically justified, because the work was extraordinarily lyrical.
I had never even heard of Kernis prior to this performance, but this quartet was a fantastic piece, and certainly something that is likely to become a fixture of future quartet repertoire — and all to the good, I say. While it looked fiendishly difficult to play, it was a great joy to hear.
Prior to performing Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” Sam Quintal of the quarter read the poem by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) that was the inspiration for Schubert’s song of the same name, and then the famous quartet, which must be one of the most famous examples of the form. In any case, here is the poem, first in the original German:
Vorüber! ach, vorüber!
Geh, wilder Knochenmann!
Ich bin noch jung, geh Lieber!
Und rühre mich nicht an.
Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund, und komme nicht zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!
And in English translation:
“It’s all over! alas, it’s all over now!
Go, savage man of bone!
I am still young – go, devoted one!
And do not molest me.”
“Give me your hand, you fair and tender form!
I am a friend; I do not come to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not savage.
You shall sleep gently in my arms.”
It was deeply satisfying to me to hear this performed live, as it is a piece of music that I know well, and the performers really leaned into it, giving the performance a striking physicality.
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