Saturday, January 31, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Sleeper finds challenge in new string quartet

Composer Thomas Sleeper.

By Greg Stepanich

DELRAY BEACH -- Thomas Sleeper finds it difficult to describe music in words, but he knows what appeals to him about the genre of the string quartet.

"I find it very challenging," said Sleeper, whose String Quartet No. 3 will have its world premiere Sunday afternoon at Delray Beach's Colony Hotel. "You've got four colors which are so similar, but each one has its own flavor, its own nuance."

Director of orchestral activities at the University of Miami, where he has worked for 15 years, Sleeper wrote the quartet on commission this summer from the Delray String Quartet, which also has agreed to record the work. A study of the score and listening to MIDI realizations reveals the new quartet to be a powerful, often somber three-movement work of hair-raising difficulty and a wide emotional range.

Listeners might find echoes of Bartok and even Bernard Herrmann in the work, whose dramatic high point is in the second movement, when the light, skipping music that opened it stops for a passionate Adagietto ma non troppo cast in a slippery B minor.

"That's kind of a distillation of the emotional content of the whole quartet, when it transitions from the bizarre opening, trying to find its polarity," Sleeper said. "The question of what tonality it is strips everything away. It lays it open."

That music returns briefly before the climax of the finale, which is dominated by agitated music that culminates in bar after bar of hammering before landing on a huge pizzicato chord in which three of the players pluck the open strings of their instruments.

Sleeper, 52, said he focused on economy for the material to make up this quartet, deriving all its music from the opening bars. But he didn't set out to craft a specific motif to do that.

"Most of what I do is pretty intuitive," he said, adding that the pieces he writes "evolve quite on their own," and he makes sure to let them do that.

The work was written in about a month last summer with the Delray quartet in mind, and particularly its first violinist, Mei-Mei Luo, whom Sleeper knew from her days at the Florida Philharmonic as well as graduate study at UM.

"I've always been attracted to writing for specific performers. I get to write to their strengths," he said.

The Delray String Quartet played the second movement from Sleeper's Second Quartet at a concert in February 2007, a movement in which violist Richard Fleischman found himself playing a Tibetan prayer bowl instead of his normal instrument.

"That was the first time I'd heard them, though I'd read some information about them," Sleeper said. "It was delightful. They play in a beautiful chamber music setting, and they have an enthusiastic following."

Sleeper's music is much in demand -- "I've got more than I can handle on my plate right now," he said -- and he has written works across the compositional spectrum from art song to symphony to opera, as his Website indicates.

The most important thing is to reach people through the medium of live performance, he said, referencing a seminar he once attended with the legendary conductor Erich Leinsdorf, who said that more entertainment, not less, was the proper goal of the performing musician. In other words, it's about connecting with an audience.

"That element is there with their group," Sleeper said of the Delray quartet. "They've got a receptive audience, and I'm glad to be able to get their attention one way or another."

In addition to the Sleeper quartet, the Delray String Quartet will play the Clarinet Quintet of Johannes Brahms (in B minor, Op. 115), with guest soloist Paul Green. 4 p.m. Sunday, Colony Hotel, downtown Delray Beach. Tickets: $35. Call 213-4138 for more information.

Here is a performance of a movement from Sleeper's First Symphony, recorded in Dallas in 2007:

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