Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mozart and Ravel: they're already retired. Dead, too.

Last night Mighty Reader and I went to hear the Emerson String Quartet. This was the fourth or fifth time we've seen the wee lads, and it was our last chance to see David Finckel play with the group, as he's leaving at the end of this concert season. We'll miss him; he may be Mighty Reader's favorite cellist, though it's hard to say. She likes pretty much every cellist simply because they've chosen to play the cello, but Mr Finckel is highly regarded at our house. Also, he made the photo of Alban Berg into a cartoon on the CD booklet he autographed after a show a few years ago, and you've got to like that. So Paul Watkins, the replacement cellist, has a high bar to meet. Cartoons, Watkins. Cartoons.

So what about the concert? The program was:

Haydn: String Quartet in D Major, Op 20, No 4.
Ades: The Four Quarters
Brahms: String Quartet No 2 in A Minor, Op 51
Bach: Fugue as arranged by W.A. Mozart (encore)

The ESQ always play fabulously. We sat in the third row last night, so we had a good look at how much eye contact the members make during the performances, and it's a lot, kids. They really do become a unit, a four-headed musician, during the concert. But I digress yet again.

The Haydn was, of course, great. I love Haydn's quartets. He wrote something like 76 of them and they are all masterpieces. This one dates from 1770 or so and it had everything that makes Haydn who he was: the propulsive rhythms, the reworking of small motifs into large-scale structures, the false recapitulations, the weird extended phrases that pull the melodies forward, etc. At some point I was transfixed by Eugene Drucker's bow arm and very nearly went into a trance. Mighty Reader thought I'd fallen asleep because I came out of the trance with a bit of a jolt. I admire Mr Drucker's bowing, that's all. The final movement of the Haydn slips between the grand classical style and an imitation of a gypsy dance band, and the first time that happened I was absolutely delighted. This is what they mean when they talk about the humor in Haydn's music: a sense of play, of wonder, of just getting away with stuff because who else is going to write music like this? Ah, Papa, how we miss you.

The Ades is a new work, from 2010, and while the opening movement didn't grab me (it's derivative of the inner movements of Bartok's later quartets), from about two minutes into the second movement onward, I was sold. I'll have to listen to this one again and I hope the Emersons have a recording of it. That second movement begins with pizzicato on all instruments, in overlapping arhythmic lines of sort of descending thirds and fourths that might represent raindrops falling randomly. I had the thought that such music was probably hard to play but it was probably trivial to write, and I was ready for it to end when the musicians one by one picked up their bows and began to play arco, and suddenly the movement made sense and I retroactively understood the pizzicato section. The piece jumped into life, active and electric and leaping forward into space. Tres cool, kids. The third movement reminded me of Nino Rota's music, sort of atonal Italian cafe pieces. The final movement was very much Bartok and Debussey (beyond the Debussey influences already present in Bartok's music, that is), with the harmonies sort of stacking up against each other and melting away in layers. Like Bartok improvising in a duet with Debussey. It was also pretty keen.

Maybe we were just tired and feeling under the weather, but the Brahms after the intermission did nothing for either of us. Yes, it was good writing and typical Brahms: very thick and virtuostic and broody and after the Ades one can't hear pizzicato the same way, but somehow I couldn't get caught up in the music. The audience seemed to prefer this piece over the first half's music and the applause was thunderous. Well-earned, yes, because the ESQ are a great group. I just wish I'd enjoyed the Brahms more. I like Brahms, too. Maybe we were tired.

The group often plays a Bach fugue as an encore, and it's always pretty and crystalline and better than you'd think it would be. I credit Mr Mozart, I suppose. Anyway, it was all fine and I'm ever so glad we've seen the Emersons as often as we have over the last few years. I suppose we should get tickets to the Juilliard SQ in February and the Tokyo SQ in April, because the Tokyo are calling it quits as a band at the end of this year. They'll be playing Mozart and Ravel, and I love the Ravel. And I love Mozart. And they're retiring. Not Mozart and Ravel: they're already retired. Dead, too. But why are all these quartets opening their programs with pieces in D major? I can't help but noticing that. It's weird, man.


  1. This obviously isn't relevant to your post, to which I have nothing intelligent to say since I unfortunately haven't seen a chamber music performance since I caught a Turtle Island SQ concert in the late nineties, but do you have any news on when The Astrologer is going to be released? I don't know why I haven't mentioned this before, but I think the idea of linking Hamlet and Tycho Brahe is brilliant. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

  2. Jabez, I only post about the concerts we go to so I can remember them later. And to force myself to think clearly about music. I used to know a lot more about music than I do now.

    The Astrologer will be out in March. I don't have a firm date yet, but March. Cover art soon, I hear, which I'll splash around the internet in the limited way I'm able.

    I stumbled across the Brahe connection; it's just that he died the same year Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet." This book's big idea, if there is one in there, is that the events of the play happened in real life, sort of, in 1601 in the real Denmark of 1601. Sort of. The events of the play don't necessarily happen to the characters Shakespeare assigned to those events. I don't know if it'll work for readers, but if nothing else the surface of the narrative is a dandy adventure story. So we'll see what we see.

    If I were to write it today, I'd do something like late Henry James and Chekhov, with Hamlet being a guy spending the summer at his parent's vacation house before going off to grad school. He'll hide in the attic and read a lot of poetry. The big reveal will be halfway through the novel when he realizes that his mother is having an affair with his uncle, who's visiting. The son will have a crisis involving his father's manhood, and his own manhood, and all the deaths in the final act will be spiritual ones. Some crazy neighbor girl will drown, too. The wilderness north of the vacation houses will be threatened by developers (a foreign guy named Mr Fortinbras). Very dense prose, very atmospheric, very slow. Nobody would read it but it would be fabulous.

  3. Hell, I might just write that version. The father would sell the property to Fortinbras at the end. "My father is dead to me," the son will not quite think. The son will be attached to the property emotionally, nostalgically, but the father will see what a money pit it is, how much it costs to maintain, etc. The attic is the son's childhood magical kingdom. The father thinks "home" is the house in town, the place with no yard, no lake, etc. The place where he can catch a taxi to the office. The family members half-overhear shouted arguments. "It's like comging to a haunted house, with all these voices in the walls," says the neighbor, Mr Polonius. At the village down the lane, the locals are staging a play, maybe "The Tempest." Yes, yes, I could write this.

  4. c.f. your Chekhov quote, eh? ;-)

  5. Yeah, I have too many ideas, all at the same time. No wonder I can't sleep and I get headaches. Thank God for gin.