Berkeley Symphony presents Del Sol String Quartet at Piedmont Center for the Arts

What a delightful musical treat to hear the incredible Del Sol String Quartet perform with great depth and virtuosity six works, two by friends, neighbors, colleagues and mentors: Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Ben Johnston (1926). Members of the stellar Del Sol String Quartet are Ben Kreith (violin I), recent member Sam Weiser (violin II), Charlton Lee (viola), and Kathryn Bates (cello), created a “California Flow” program.

Lou Harrison’s “Variation on Song of Palestine” is from his String Quartet Set (1979). He used a Minnesinger melody for its source, unmistakably medieval. The work opened into a rich, full sound with an interesting viola solo over a drone in the cello. The peasant dance, or “Estampie,” was a favorite of Lou’s that he used in many works, with a sustained drone, while the cellist becomes a percussionist tapping the body of the cello with the left hand while striking the proximal side of the strings (the other side of the bridge) with the right hand.

“Toot Nipple” by John Adams was taken from his “Book of Alleged Dances” (1994) and lit up with rapid fire lines by Ben Kreith, a short work that demonstrated high quality musicianship and the intense virtuosity to come.

The Wheel and Mythic Birds Waltz by Terry Riley opened with a slow, somber, tranquil texture that was just the tip of the iceberg of the diploma-level musical challenges ahead. Rhythmically addictive textures with shades and spices of Bulgarian-Middle Eastern music permeated a substantial amount of the work. The Del Sol players conquered all acrobatic figurations and challenges with perfection and creativity.

Two works by Gabriela Lena Frank from her Milagros: Adios a Churin and Danza de los Munecosand Chasqui from her Leyendas blended traditional European and South American musical ideas into her works. A lovely cello line against a violin and viola backdrop offered a South American reflection. There was a sense of warmth and technical address associated with these works.

The well known and enjoyed ‘Besame mucho” by Mexican composer Consuelo Velasquez took on a new abstract, interiorized eloquence under the pen of composer Stefano Scodanibbio. Here, the sense of familiar spangles of delicate sound were masked by modern elegance. The results and approach to this well cherished work was brilliant.

I had the pleasure of studying composition with Ben Johnson while pursuing my D.M.A. at the University of Illinois at Urbana. Ben was highly interested and involved with “microtonality,” the notes and sounds that have fallen somewhere between the cracks of the piano keys. Of course with standard tuning, microtonality is not available to the piano, however, over the decades many instruments have developed ways of achieving techniques that may be considered part of unique tuning systems. Amazing Grace employs carefully considered use of microtonal systems that create the desired textures Ben was seeking.  Using a long rope, the concept was clearly demonstrated by Charlton Lee and Ben Kreith. Each holding one end of the rope they demonstrated how the straight line can be divided into the necessary parts to create the desire ratios.

Curiously, considering his remarkable specificity in the realm of pitch, Johnston allows the performers great latitude when it comes to articulation, and to some degree, dynamics. Group choices are made, but with Johnston’s okay before finalizing any decisions. Johnson’s major concerns are that the performers express the proper emotion, and that repeated sections are played differently the second time around.

Sobriety over tempest tossed moments evolved into a seductive experience of warmth, technical address and virtuosity. BRAVO!

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