Premiere of “White Water” by Composer Joan Tower

Violinist Min-Young Kim, composer Joan Tower and violinist Matilda Kaul

At Carmel’s Sunset Center last night, Chamber Music Monterey Bay and the Daedalus Quartet unleashed a world premiere performance of Joan Tower’s string quartet, “White Water.” I use the word “unleashed,” because what we heard was a bold dramatic work full of suppressed violence straining to burst its bounds. This work alternates between many emotions, some of which are enigmatic, dazzling, disturbing, serene, and virtuosic to the extreme, but also totally absorbing. “White Water” grabs you by the throat and commands your attention for approximately twenty minutes, and seemingly only a brief twenty minutes at that.

The first impression given by this work is how beautifully effective it sounds. To what degree this was determined by Tower’s skill in writing for string instruments or the fabulous playing of the members of the Daedalus Quartet, was difficult to say. The work itself and the performers seemed to be totally together as one.

The work began with a lovely viola solo by Jessica Thompson consisting of a scale-like melody, echoed by the other instruments that always seemed to be thrusting upwards, sometimes diatonically, sometimes chromatically and sometimes as eerie glissandos. Also quite memorable was a lovely cello solo by Thomas Kraines and the rich pure sound of violinist Min-Young Kim. The cumulative effect of the white-hot energy generated by this work drew a warm response from the audience both for the performance and for the appearance on stage of composer Joan Tower.

CMMB President Amy Anderson addressed the audience at the beginning of the evening to speak about CMMB’s four-year commissioning project called “Arc of Life” of which Joan Tower’s “White Water” is the first installment. She also mentioned that this series of commissions was inspired by artist Bill Viola’s video montage, “Going Forth by Day.”

As a prelude to “White Water” some of the visual montage images from “Going Forth by Day” were projected on a screen over the stage. They were, however, very brief and probably less effective than the original projections of five continuous 35-minute scenes screened in a darkened room at the top of the Guggenheim, all being projected simultaneously by continuous loop tapes and accompanied by an audio track.

The scenes we saw were: “Fire Birth” (a human form swimming in an amniotic-type fluid in a struggle between death and rebirth), “The Path” (an endless parade of various groups of people walking though a forest from left to right), “The Deluge” (a slowly developing flash flood demolishing a building and washing way people unfortunate enough not to escape its destruction), “The Voyage” (the death of a man observed by close relatives after which his body and personal possessions were taken away by boat), and the final scene “First Light” (a spiritual rebirth and ascension).

An important question here is: how relevant and vital were these scenes to an understanding of Joan Tower’s “White Water? My opinion is that it would have been enough to read in the printed program how Viola’s work made a strong impression on her and how it shaped some of her compositional ideas. The bottom line is that “White Water” is a powerful and idiomatic work for string quartet that can absolutely stand on its own.

The evening’s concert began with a spirited performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, “The Joke” that contained lovely bits of whimsy in the trio section in the Scherzo, a lovely slow movement and a delicious romp to the end in the finale.

Ending the concert we heard Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, which was a smorgasbord of musical delights. What better way to end a string quartet concert!

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