Centerpiece of the program at Carmel’s Sunset Center on Friday, April 25, 2014, was an impressive world premiere of a work for string quartet and soprano by American composer George Tsontakis. This was the third commission of a series of four entitled “Arc of Life”, inspired by video artist Bill Viola’s “Going Forth by Day”, and was dedicated by Amy Anderson, President Emeritus of Chamber Music Monterey Bay, to cellist Margaret Rowell and conductor/composer Michael Senturia, two of her former music teachers at Berkeley. Professor Senturia was happily present at this performance.
Although Tsontakis has named the piece String Quartet No.7, and begins it with a mood-setting introduction for strings alone (the St. Lawrence String Quartet doing the honors), the addition of the soprano (Jessica Rivera) increasingly transformed it into a major vocal work. Three poems provided the text, all concerned with the Death end of the Arc of Life, and yet the overall effect was not unduly gloomy, thanks to the pure and even quality of Ms. Rivera’s voice, and the imaginative variety of the string accompaniments and interludes, delivered with conviction by the St. Lawrence quartet.
The first poem to be heard was Herman Melville’s elegy “Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862).” The singer and the quartet begin with a gently oscillating figure as the swallows fly low over the Civil War battlefield. The mood becomes tragic as we hear of the “dying foemen mingled there — Foemen at morn, but friends at eve”, until again “the swallows skim, And all is hushed at Shiloh.”
In an interlude, the second violin has a snatch of a folk tune, the first violin has a sweet line, and the cello is active, before we move with mournful glissandi to the second poem, “Dead in the Cold”, by Christina G. Rossetti about a “song-singing thrush, Dead at the foot of a snowberry bush” — from a nursery rhyme book, although rather cheerless for children. The vocal part here is in a lower register where Ms. Rivera revealed a mezzo richness of color, and perfect intonation, even during a soft semitone dissonance with the violin. At the end of this miniature, the strings become surprisingly excited, with more folk song and slapped pizzicato effects, before settling down to the long closing section to the words of Walt Whitman.
Here, Tsontakis has logically chosen to set to music the seven stanzas of the poem that Whitman himself introduces as a “carol”, yet it was perhaps disappointing for the audience not to be offered the moving and justly celebrated first line of the poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. Although, in an introductory talk, the composer disavowed any intention of literal word painting, it was possible to identify many of the varied moods of different stanzas — “Come, lovely and soothing death … serenely arriving … delicate death” is followed by “Prais’d be the fathomless universe, For life and joy …but praise! praise! praise! For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.” The “dark mother” and the “strong deliveress” and the “glad serenades, Dances for thee” of the next three stanzas were well characterized, leading to “The night in silence” evoked by night music such as Bartok used to like to write, and the final stanza “Over the tree-tops I float thee a song, … I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death,” and a fadeaway ending.
The full experience of relating the words to the music like this is barely possible to achieve at a first performance, and would have required almost superhuman diction from the singer. As it was, hardly any of the words came across, and the voice was like a very beautiful extra instrumental line. A suggestion for future performances might be to adopt the common policy of opera houses nowadays, and project the words above the performers. The apparatus was already in place, since the music had been preceded by projection of some Bill Viola stills. Any affront to the traditional austerity of the chamber music scene would be more than compensated by better understanding of the complete work of art. Incidentally, while commenting on the aesthetics of the stage, mention should be made of yet another magnificent floral arrangement, as is the CMMB tradition.
The concert had begun auspiciously with an early masterpiece of Haydn, his Quartet in E-flat, Op.20, No.1. Right at the start, the cello had a couple of nimble entries that came off well, and the pregnant pauses showed that the players were already concentrating. The sound was warm and full — perhaps even a little heavy for Haydn. (Surprisingly, the Dvorak later in the program often sounded lighter and fresher.) There were also some stylish plangent chords waiting to be resolved, and the measured tempo seemed just right for the composer’s Allegro moderato marking. Similarly, in the breezy minuet, the “Un poco allegretto” was faithfully observed, and the oddly meandering trio did not wait around. The legato chorale-like slow movement in three was solid rather than inspired, but the playing of the Finale: Presto scored all of Haydn’s witty points, starting out with deceptive simplicity and leading to some tricky syncopations before the throwaway ending.
After the intermission, the St. Lawrence quartet gave us an inspired account of Dvorak’s Quartet No.11 in C Major, Op.61. The Czech tone color and inflections were evident from the start, with the lively triplet pickups in the first theme, and the beautiful legato melody of the second subject. The development was exciting, and the recapitulation included magical pianissimo, leading to a satisfying coda and a final chord left suspended in the air. In the slow movement, we heard sweet tone from first violinist Geoff Nuttall, darker sound from second violinist Mark Fewer, neat interjections from violist Lesley Robertson (although overall it was a quiet night for viola), and firm and shapely cello from Christopher Costanza. There was time to reflect that the St. Lawrence quartet seemed to achieve their unity not by suppressing their individual characters so much as by unanimity of understanding, thorough rehearsal, and precision of ensemble. Their familiarity with every detail of this Dvorak quartet was remarkable. Other notable parts of the slow movement included silken violins above cello pizzicato, and somber chromatic modulations of the whole quartet. The scherzo sparkled in its minor key, and there was rustic fiddling in the trio. Finally, the Vivace was taken at a spanking pace with dazzling sixteenths, and Nuttall, that most gymnastic of violinists, alternated between floating above his chair and sitting on it with both feet in the air. There followed a gorgeous slow rhapsodic interlude, and then the dash to the heroic ending — a virtuoso performance indeed by the quartet, and yet still within the spirit of chamber music, which has so often brought the best out of great composers.
And so, on behalf of the whole audience, thanks to George Tsontakis for a fine new work (and to Amy Anderson for her sponsorship of the commission), to Jessica Rivera for her distinguished singing, and to the St. Lawrence String Quartet who went from strength to strength throughout the program.