Decoda Ensemble earns ovation for “Gumboots”

Decoda, the pioneering Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall, is a group of young musicians with a mission. Not only do they perform a wide range of music (including modern works) for various combinations of instruments, they also bring their enthusiasm in other ways to the communities they visit. Prior to this concert at Sunset Center on Saturday evening, February 24th, 2018, they had given public master classes to several chamber music groups of Youth Music Monterey.

The string players (Owen Dalby and Anna Elashvili, violins; Meena Bhasin, viola; and Saeunn Thosteinsdóttir, cello) immediately set the tone for the evening with their intimate account of Schubert’s Quartettsatz, D. 703, which retains its place in the repertoire despite being even more unfinished than his Unfinished Symphony – it consists of a single first movement of an intended 12th Quartet, yet has enough glories in its ten minutes to mark it as the start of Schubert’s mature period in this medium.

The quiet, expressive playing drew the audience in, as would have occurred in its early performances, before the days of string quartets having to project into large concert halls.  Even in the more energetic passages, there were no rough edges, and the rapid rising scales in the first violin were notably fluent. Schubert rang the changes on the rhythms within the 6/8 meter, and effortlessly modulated the delicious, lyrical second subject from A flat major through many neighboring keys to as distant a key as G major.

The highlight of the concert proved to be a 2008 work for clarinet and string quartet by composer David Bruce (born in Connecticut, and educated in England). As expertly described by Kai Christiansen in his pre-concert talk, the unusual title Gumboots derives from South Africa, where there was a time that black workers in flooded mines wore waterproof boots, and were chained together and forbidden to speak. Consequently they developed a language by rattling their chained boots, which led to a genre of intricate rhythmic “gumboot dancing”.

Bruce’s work was inspired by this history, but does not attempt to use any specific gumboot dances. Rather, it is a celebration of the human ability to overcome adversity, in which the slow Part I reflects on the gloomy working conditions, while Part II consists of five vivid polyrhythmic dances.

The quartet was joined by Irish clarinetist Carol McGonnell, first on bass clarinet, and then on the regular B flat instrument as the sad melody, inflected with grace notes and shakes, rose higher. Halfway through Part I, the pulse quickens with an underlying viola ostinato.  McGonnell’s beautiful tone and sensitive phrasing were spellbinding, so that the simple material did not outstay its welcome, but instead displayed the ability of art to transcend some of the ills of the world.  Such delicate playing of the bass clarinet is rarely heard.

Part II was a complete contrast, with increasingly virtuosic contributions from all the players. The clarinet, for example, has fast repeated notes in the first dance, high running notes in the next, glissando in the third, trills above a waltz in the fourth, and syncopation in the last – usually with different rhythms from the strings – and McGonnell gave a delightful account of these dances. Even though this extrovert music might have packed even more punch at a higher volume level, the exuberance of the composition and of the performance brought the audience to its feet for a prolonged ovation – exceptional for a modern work, and well deserved.

Only a masterpiece like the Brahms Clarinet Quintet could have successfully followed such an audience-pleaser, and what was refreshing about Decoda’s performance of the Brahms was that they continued to apply their own musicianship to the interpretation, rather than being overawed by the stature of the work.  The Decoda players avoided the tendency to become perfectionist or reverential or self-indulgent, and seemed to be faithful to the composer’s intentions in keeping the opening Allegro moving along. The excellent first and second violins, Dalby and Elashvili, had democratically exchanged places for this half of the program, and played their opening motif in thirds with an ideal legato. McGonnell’s tone was even richer on the A clarinet, and entries were velvety.

By contrast with the Allegro, the second movement was played as a genuinely slow Adagio, allowing the complexity to be heard, and the effect to be haunting. Only when it came to the wild gypsy flourishes in the middle section did some of them sound unnatural rather than convincingly emotional, but this was soon compensated with acceleration into the impassioned climax which was magnificent. The Andantino was charming as ever, and the final theme and variations gave everyone their chance, with Thosteinsdóttir reveling in the wide intervals of the cello variation, and Bhasin warm and strong in the viola variation.

As often happens, the audience was left stunned by the ending, when Brahms, near the end of his life, recollects the opening of the first movement of the work, and then its two closing minor chords of resignation. This was a fine debut in Carmel for Decoda, and we look forward to a future visit – even if it is of a completely different combination of instruments and players.



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