On January 19th, 2019, at Sunset Center, the Borromeo String Quartet performed the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet by Jean Françaix, the String Quartet in G Minor by Claude Debussy, Etude #6 and Lullaby #2 by Sebastian Currier, (both west coast premieres), and Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings by Mozart. The members of the quartet were violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim, and on the Françaix and Mozart pieces, Richard Stoltzman was featured on clarinet.
Pre-concert lecturer Kai Christiansen, made a dubious-sounding, almost presumptuous-sounding, statement. He told us that the theme for the concert was perfection. The first thought that came to my mind was that this provided the performers with quite a high bar, but after Christiansen went deeper, describing how each of these pieces related back to the central theme of perfection, I was almost convinced. I told myself: “I’ll just have to hear what’s in store before I concede that their ambitious claim was truly merited”.
And the following is what I heard:
The musicians are afoot at once. The piece by Françaix has begun. A somber melody sweeps the room, and accompanists sway in eighth notes. But the voice has a note of mockery, as occasional dissonances slip through the cracks, and are shamelessly left unresolved. Suddenly, the floor falls out underneath the clarinetist, who barks an atonal, stammering cadenza, and the quartet jumps into a jolly polka, with the cellist imitating the sound of an tuba (think: “oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah”). Romantic interludes are glued on top of drunken dances. Gruff cello lines and squeaks from the clarinet taunt the occasional blips of sentimentality, and a coda is abruptly squashed together.
The second movement presents a similar scene: 1st violin and clarinet quarrel over who gets to play the melody. Jigs ensue, and the stringed instruments find themselves plucking with a disregard for common courtesy. Cinematic passion surges over the quintet like a wave, but they are quickly brought down by their carnal drive towards anarchy (this is not a critical, but rather a very sincere compliment). We observe musical ideas recurring with a postmodern disregard for coherence, and, once more, a quaint, shuffled ending is slapped on the end of another chaotic movement.
However, the third movement presents a change: now the viola rises to bear the fruit of glory, and sings a solemn sermon. The torch is passed to the clarinet who helps fuel the music into hysteria, but now, it seems that the music descends not into turmoil, but into rest. This movement strikes a similar tone to Shostakovich’s more introspective and tormented works, taking beautiful melodies played by the 1st violin or clarinet, and pitting them against the darker, more grotesque colors from the other members of the ensemble. The ending is not spontaneous, but premeditated: a warm major chord rings harmoniously and dissipates naturally to a close.
And we’re off to the races! The fourth movement returns with the jumbled, incomprehensible rambling of someone breathless and exasperated. We hear melodies unfinished, and others jaunty, cynical and sarcastic, and yet others undercut with jarring, cacophonous chords exploited gratuitously. With each passing second, the listeners are thrown further and further into a nihilistic ball. Idiosyncratic waves of color are muffled by the growing tempest, and after a taunting “na-na-na-na-boo-boo” the clarinet puts the quartet to an end, and delivers cries, shrieks, twists and turns, squeaks, and incomplete runs, and the string quartet jumps back in and ends with a thump.
This was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor came next, and began with a fierce Spanish melody, which soon after seemed to be infused with bursts of French impressionist color. A marriage of romanticism and impressionism, you could say. We hear many different sounds emerge from the instruments, all, in some roundabout way, related back to the central Spanish theme –= the cellist uses its lower register to a haunting effect, the viola moans underneath the 1st violinist’s melody, and after a growing sense of doubt and ambiguity, the group finds itself heroically, with great certainty, restating the original theme in reckless joviality, (my favorite moment in the piece). After the glory is past, a long, winding coda ensues, where the theme is passed around among all musicians less formally, and a tremolo scale played in unison ends the movement.
The second movement continued the trend of the first. The subject is played in a hurried and under-developed fashion, and underneath it the 1st violin is playing seductive pizzicato lines that evolve into insistent and voracious arpeggios. (At this point in the piece, for lack of better words, I had written on my notepad “The amount of colors!”). Tritones are shouted blatantly and without apology, and a chaotic mutilation of the theme winds down into a soft “G” plucked by the quartet, ending the movement.
The second violin proposes a question, with the other instruments answering half-heartedly with murmuring uncertainly. The viola, unsatisfied, repeats the question, but they realize the question can never be answered to produce beauty in spite of the absurdity of existence. (Did a certain Charles Ives take inspiration from a French ancestor?) After the calming sounds had used up their allotted time, dissonance and tense incertitude took center stage once more, and the disillusionment could only give way to a great orator who could rally up spirits behind nationalistic cries, and this orator took the form of the violist, who issued a robust proclamation, and found assent in the crowd. The first violin took the violist’s side, and helped establish an unthreatening equality. This peacefulness, again, proves boring and underwhelming to the musicians, so the 1st violin breaks into a violent and beautiful rebellion. All of the quartet members deliver their individual testaments and a quiet, plaintive song is borne from the shared rebellious spirit. And the final thing we hear from the tired revolutionaries, is the last urge to make one’s duty known.
The fourth movement begins with a cello cadenza, inspiring uncertain musical phrases to grow from the uncertain soil. Twisted, syncopated motifs grow in fervor, grotesque upheavals give way to drunken recapitulation, and the 1st violin ends the work with a virtuosic scale.
After intermission, we heard an expressionistic nightmare. Curier’s Étude presents the most foreboding and technically demanding piece of music on the program. The sprightly frenzy and unharmonious gashes persist throughout the entire Étude, and even as the volume quietens, the energy is consistent. We hear screams sustained, over demonic sixteenth note runs. We hear the cello imitating what sounds like a walking bass line. This wall of sound keeps its steam running for—well it could have been 2 minutes or 10; who can tell how fast time is passing during such a piece of music—until the quartet abruptly ends its manic fit, and the audience, caught of guard, starts applauding.
The lullaby, to which a baby certainly would not fall asleep, was still gorgeous in its timbre. The sounds we hear are amorphous and atmospheric, many strong dissonances ringing beautifully through the hall. Intonation is expertly abandoned, rich and vague chords are left to bask in, and wispy ponticello notes permeate the soundscape. A perfect fifth rings underneath the heavenly, rising overtones from the 1st violin.
After a display of such discordant and chromatic modernism, it was a welcome relief to hear a piece of music by Mozart. The clarinet, passes back and forth between serving the role of soloist, and being a member of the ensemble. We heard a reference to the famous Pachelbel canon, and the major exposition is countered with a minor development. We hear a short-lived fugue spring up from the 1st violin and pass on to the other ensemble members with a flirtatious interplay between the clarinet and 1st violin, a restatement of the theme, and a reassuring coda.
The second movement began with a beautiful aria from the clarinet, with the cello assuming a basso continuo role. We heard the violins singing angelically, a captivating cadenza by the clarinet. What a pure, unadulterated tone: that of the clarinet! A warm, snug, and drowsy coda brought an end to the movement.
The third movement is more experimental in scope. Melody crosses from instrument to instrument, tethered by a lopsided and pouty accompaniment. The third time through the melody, the viola quarrels and mutters to itself in spite of the glorified 1st violin. We heard dissonances shocking for the time period, (although not shocking in comparison to the dissonances just previously heard on this program) and interjections thrown out of time, making the movement, apart from the others, a fascinating study.
The fourth movement sounded like a folk dance, especially with the clarinet using its lower register for a honking, comedic effect, and the viola briefly playing an eastern-flavored melody. The clarinet exhibited a tipsy style of playing; slowly, slurred and out-of-time, and an eruption of dance brought the concert to an end.
What better word is there to describe such a concert, What better word is there to describe such an experience, than perfect? Borromeo String Quartet, you have won me over.