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Friction Quartet brings three premieres to Old First Concerts

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Yesterday afternoon Friction Quartet gave its first recital program in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. The ensemble consists of violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel (alternating in who takes first chair), violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz. Last month they were on a tour that took them to New York, and three of the pieces on yesterday’s program received their premiere there. Two of those new pieces were commissioned by the group. The afternoon thus provided an array of impressively diverse West Coast premieres.

The commissioned works were presented as the first half of the program. The first of these was “Unmanned,” composed by Ian Dicke for string quartet and electronics. The title refers specifically to the recent impact of drone technology in warfare and to a more general trend of dehumanization over the course of military history.

The function of the computer-controlled electronics involved capturing audio samples during the performance of the notated score and using those samples to provide a textural accompaniment for the performers. The initial burst of playback overwhelmed the performers, but the dynamics were then quickly attenuated to create an auditory environment so well balanced that one could not always determine which sounds were coming from the loudspeakers. To the extent that “Unmanned” had a political agenda, that auditory confusion underscored that sense of dehumanization that motivated the composer. It was then emphasized by a coda during which (perhaps with a somewhat grim nod to Joseph Haydn) the players left the stage one by one. However, while Haydn’s musicians were “saying farewell” to their master, the electronic sounds persisted in the absence of the performers, leaving them sitting in the front row of the audience as spectators of their work, not unlike drone pilots viewing the destruction they have wrought through video monitors. The entire experience was chillingly effective.

This grim composition was followed by the far more positive “Inyo” by Gabriella Smith, who was on hand to provide some introductory remarks. The title refers to the Inyo National Forest in the Eastern Sierra, and the music was inspired by the composer’s own backpacking trips. Smith’s interpretation of her experiences amounted to an auditory panorama composed almost entirely of large-scale textures, rather than melodic lines subjected to the grammars of counterpoint and harmony. Furthermore, the progression of those textures involved gradual change, recalling (but far from resembling) the structures of early compositions by Steve Reich.

This was clearly music that demanded intense focus and precision, but those have been characteristics of Friction performances for as long as I have been listening to them. The result was an auditory journey taken at the gradual pace of a physical hike with ample time to dwell on specific features as one encountered them. The effect made for a welcome easing of the tension created by “Unmanned,” bringing the first half of the program to conclusion with a sense of balance restored.

The final West Coast premiere on the program was Stephen Feigenbaum’s Strange Dances. Back in December of 2011, I used my national site to report on and discuss an article that Allan Kozinn had written for The New York Times about the ways in which “club culture” was taking over the concert experience. I suggested that Kozinn was describing a performance environment in which socializing was more important than listening; and, as anyone who reads me regularly knows, I was not happy with the situation he was describing.

Listening to Strange Dances gave me the impression that Feigenbaum was not happy, either. However, while I used my writing to get mad, Feigenbaum used his composing skills to get even. Each of the four movements of his suite captures a different aspect of the vapid mindlessness of club life, beginning with the unthinking brute reflexes of the bouncer at the door, progressing through two dances, neither of which ever gives in to the basics of either melody or rhythm long enough to sustain a dance, and concluding with retiring to bed with a “Night Cap” consisting of little more than a quiet television jingle, the closest the score ever gets to a clearly stated theme. If Strange Dances was an act of revenge, then it was elegantly executed revenge; and Friction caught its full spirit delightfully.

The final work on the program was Claude Debussy’s Opus 10, his only string quartet, written in the key of G minor. Harriel, sitting in first chair for this performance, discussed Debussy’s sense of economy in sustaining few basic materials through the four movements of his composition. However, what mattered most was the clarity with which Friction disclosed those materials and the keen sense of balance through which one could easily grasp the subtleties of instrumental interplay. This was one of Debussy’s earliest compositions away from the piano, yet Friction performed it with a sensibility through which one could appreciate many of the distinctive aspects that would emerge in Debussy’s subsequent composition on the larger orchestral scale.

The concert concluded with an encore, which was an arrangement by Machiz of “exit music (for a film)” from the Radiohead album OK Computer, calming Feigenbaum’s provocations with a more placid take on the pop scene.

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