While people were out and about making the most of the holiday weekend Saturday night, one of Los Angeles’ most exciting chamber ensembles was indoors celebrating an anniversary with a performance. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of The Formalist Quartet composed of violinists Andrew Tholl, Mark Menzies, and Andrew McIntosh alongside cellist Ashley Walters. (Menzies and McIntosh trade off on viola parts providing the group with one more unique quirk that sets them apart from the crowd.) In 2006, the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich’s birth, the four players united with an interest in 20th-century and contemporary chamber music specifically with an interest in Shostakovich and Luigi Nono. The temptation of taking the name of an aesthetic movement once used as an artistic slur against Shostakovich and others by Soviet authorities during some of the composer’s darkest days was too great to ignore. And in five years the ensemble has had an increasingly high profile working with the likes of Icelandic composer/performer Johann Johannsson and exploring other 20th-century and newer repertoire in a number of musical venues around town and around the country.
In the last year the ensemble has forged a close relationship with the expanding music programming at Venice, CA’s Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center one of L.A.’s true bastions of independent arts spirit and thinking. Saturday’s performance was the Formalist’s third there, and the program pointed both forward and back for the players. Half of the evening was devoted to works by three of the quartet’s four members. Menzies offered a duo for violin and cello with a minimal amount of added percussion called The Kid. The work was a premiere and his latest in a series of compositions related to the birds of his native New Zealand. These are by no means Messiaen’s oiseaux, but a different more abstract breed with sounds less anthropomorphic or naturalistic than you might suspect. Tholl offered two very short solo violin works written for McIntosh, my memories are never an accurate representation and you take your path, I’ll take mine. McIntosh in return presented the appropriately names Two Small Quartets an effort to overcome his personal hesitancy about writing for the genre. Both ended too quickly and were studies in contrast with the first being softly played and nearly absent sounding with the other revolving around long-held tones passed between the players.
But as much as the evening was about their own compositions, it was also about the works that brought them together in the first place. Leos Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1 was a frequent part of the group’s repertoire in their fist two years, and they revisited it here with a lusty swirling performance that made the most out of the folk elements that underpin so much of Janacek’s work. The show ended with Shostakovich. How else could it? The group picked the less frequently performed Quartet No. 5 in celebration of their anniversary. The players easily shifted between the ribald and the lyrical with well coordinated, superb playing from all corners. The sound was precise and intuitive at the same time, which made for a wonderful evening overall. Even in the middle of a holiday weekend.