Thursday, January 29, 2009

Music review: Frith's 'Lelekovice' inspires on strong Calder Quartet concert

English guitarist, composer and educator Fred Frith.

By Greg Stepanich

LAKE WORTH -- There are many ways to describe music, from the fanciful to the mundane, but Wednesday afternoon a young string quartet from Los Angeles compellingly brought an audience's ears back to the art's most fundamental identity: Sound.

The Calder Quartet, a four-man group that likes to mix provocative new works with fresh interpretations of the old, opened the Duncan Theatre's chamber music series with two canonical works by Mozart and Beethoven, and one quartet from 1990 by the English guitarist Fred Frith.

Frith's piece, titled Lelekovice after the Czech hometown of a Frith friend who is a violinist and singer, is a nine-movement exploration of a Gypsy scale replete with string glissandi, passionate fragments of folksong and effects that evoke, among other things, the sound of a crushed button-box. In concert, Frith is fond of bowing electric guitars and relishing the sound, and this work had all the hallmarks of a piece written by someone in love with the sheer pleasure of aural mischief and exploration.

Interesting effects abounded in the work, such as in the second movement, as cellist Eric Byers ran his index finger up and down the C string, creating a steady wave of hush, while violist Jonathan Moerschel played jagged shards of the scale above. In the sixth, a pounding dance rhythm begun by first violinist Benjamin Jacobson led into an emotionally tumultuous landscape that tore itself apart before the rhythm started things up once again.

In the seventh, the music switched to a glacial pace, with meditative, slowly moving chords ornamented briefly as Jacobson played pieces of melody that started but stopped abruptly, and in the ninth, a simple, slow, back-and-forth two-chord seesaw underlay wisps of the scale as the music quietly expired.

It was a fascinating piece of music, no doubt not to everyone's taste, but a marvelous way to reorient the listening apparatus and hear notes and musical structures in new ways. The Calder's performance was exceptional, with each player clearly committed to making the piece work, in part because such a work forces musicians to be on their toes at all times.

"We really appreciate you going there with us," second violinist Andrew Bulbrook told the audience at the beginning of the second half, recounting the Frith performance, which had closed the first half. And it seemed to me that playing the Frith did wonders for the piece they played next, the first so-called Rasumovsky Quartet (No. 7 in F, Op. 59, No. 1) of Beethoven.

In his remarks, Bulbrook argued that the three Rasumovsky quartets are an example of how Beethoven remade the legacy of Mozart and Haydn in ways that were alarming to contemporary audiences. So here was a Rasumovsky reading that stressed the work's weirdness and originality; those famous sudden half-note chords just before the recapitulation in the first movement sounded arresting and strange, especially amid the full-bodied serenity of the music surrounding it.

In the second movement (briefly interrupted by a string slipping on Byers' cello), the military-style rhythmic tattoo was presented with force and power, and there was a special note-conscious beauty to the interplay of the four instruments as they traded changes on the six-note motif that makes up a major part of the main theme.

The slow movement showcased the ability of this quartet to play beautiful music with high emotion, and it was here too that the quartet demonstrated one of its other fine attributes, that of playing consistently in tune. Jacobson played the elaborate ending of the third movement with precision and care, and it led logically, as it's written to do, into the trill that opens the finale. The Calder gave the finale more of the fresh, springy quality it gave to the whole piece, with sharply contrasted dynamics and exuberant rhythms paramount.

The concert opened with the Dissonant Quartet of Mozart (No. 19 in C, K. 465), so named for the harmonic asperity of its opening bars. String quartets often make a point of drawing out the clashes in these measures, but the Calder stayed well away from that approach, choosing to make the opening smooth and trouble-free.

The strengths of this fine foursome were in abundant display throughout the Mozart: Accurate tuning, first-rate ensemble, and a flexibility of approach to different styles that allowed, for example, the minuet and trio of the work to be played with such bold, exciting contrast.

The next chamber group in the Duncan series is the Mozart Piano Quartet, a group from Germany that will play a program of well-known piano quartets from its home country: Beethoven's Op. 16 (in E-flat), the Brahms G minor (Op. 25) and the Schumann in E-flat, Op. 47. The concert is set for 3 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, at the Duncan Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach Community College in Lake Worth. Tickets are $25. Call 868-3309 or visit

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