Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Something New

July 30, 2011

The Calder Quartet with Christopher Rouse Photo: mine 2011

It wouldn’t be summer in Santa Fe without new music. And while the newest thing on offer from the typically trail blazing Santa Fe Opera this year is Menotti’s 1963 opera The Last Savage, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is bringing a number of recent commissions to local stages as is their annual tradition. The piece I was most excited to hear (although there are several other great offerings in this month’s schedule) was Christopher Rouse’s String Quartet No. 3, which received the final two performances of its rolling premiere here. Rouse composed the work with the support of the Festival and other organizations specifically for the young and extremely talented L.A.-based Calder Quartet who performed it on both Thursday and Friday in the St. Francis Auditorium. Rouse describes the work, his first chamber piece since 1996, in his notes as perhaps one of his most personal compositions calling it music that has been in his head a long time, but never before now finding expression due to the limitations in rehearsal time and other logistics in writing the piece for a full orchestra. Thus when the Calder commission for a quartet came along, it was the perfect time to offer up this music in a chamber format to a group that could make the long term commitment to what Rouse warned would be a particularly difficult piece to play. He likens the work to a seizure and it’s a bracing, forceful, and jarring single movement. Much of this is played in unison by the quartet and despite a quieter middle section, the work does come out swinging. The Calder Quartet showed amazing skill in managing the work’s coordination challenges as it reels from moment to moment.

It was unnerving in a good sense and seemed to have that effect on the players as well. In Thursday’s noon time concert, which included Haydn’s "Joke" String Quartet before and Beethoven’s No. 11 Quartet after the Rouse, the emotional force of the new piece spilled over into the Beethoven for a raw and rather edgy turn. The whimsical Haydn, served as a double joke in that it actively avoided setting the stage for what was to follow. It was well played and increased the impact of Rouse's new work. On Friday’s “Masters of Modern Music” program the quartet closed the show and came off more unwound and less tense than on Thursday. That may have been in part due to the quartet’s bedfellows on Friday. That show opened with the Calder Quartet playing Peter Eötvös’ Korrespondenz, a setting of communication between Mozart and his father during Mozart’s turbulent Paris years. And while there is no vocal music in the piece, it bristles like a heated conversation and ends with issues unresolved much like real arguments.

The other two pieces on Friday’s program featured some prodigious playing and guts from the harpist Bridget Kibbey. First she paired with flutist Tara Helen O’Connor for Toru Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea III with its take on the American New England coastline from a Japanese perspective. This haunting and lovely moment was followed by Kibbey alone playing the smallest snippet from R. Murray Schafer’s magnum opus Patria. This monumental multi-day expansive musical drama rivals the Ring cycle in scope and this 15-minute solo derivative is like playing the horn solo from Act II of Siegfried on a program by itself. This re-orchestrated passage from Patria No. 5: The Crown of Ariadne, which was originally scored for at least 15 players, is reduced for harp and percussion both of which Kibbey played at the same time. In between moments of playing her specially tuned harp she would suddenly strike out at a bell or chime only to return to the harp in the next beat. At one point she tied on anklets of bells to accompany her playing as well. It was fascinating to watch her level of concentration and the music evoking Ariadne was a pleasure. Sure it wasn’t performed on the beach as the original score calls for with the full ensemble, but you can’t have everything. But on this afternoon, one got some lovely recent music and its significant local premiere from a great late 20th Century composer played by one of the most exciting yong string quartets. And that's plenty.


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