Last night’s concert by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble at the Dennis Gallagher Arts Pavilion was entitled Left Coast String Bands. All seven performers for the evening played on bowed strings: violinists Anna Presler and Phyllis Kamrin, violists Kurt Rohde and Pei-Ling Lin (making a guest appearance), cellists Leighton Fong and Tanya Tomkins, and Michel Taddei on bass. They played as an ensemble for Rohde’s “Hear no evil…after Arneson, Bach and Copland…” and separated into subsets for the remainder of the program. Each half of the program featured one major work, György Ligeti’s first string quartet (entitled “Métamorphoses nocturnes”) before the intermission and Johannes Brahms’ first string quintet (Opus 88 in F major) in the second half. Each of these was coupled with a short and recent offering.
The two long pieces represent their respective composers at different stages of development. By 1882, the year in which Opus 88 was composed, Brahms had established his reputation with A German Requiem (Opus 45) and his first two symphonies (Opus 68 in C minor and Opus 73 in D major). By that time he had also composed his only three string quartets but had accumulated a significant chamber music portfolio with an emphasis on strings and piano. Opus 88 thus rested on a solid foundation of past experience.
Ligeti, on the other hand, had yet to find the “voice” we now associate with him. He had completed his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where his teachers included Zoltán Kodály. He had followed in his master’s footsteps to pursue an ethnomusicological study in Transylvania; and, with Kodály’s assistance, he had secured a teaching position at the Liszt Academy. As a composer, however, he had to worry about Soviet censorship and had to conceal the work that most interested him. As a result, he would later say that he wrote his first string quartet for the “bottom drawer” (where the authorities would never see it). The music itself, completed in 1954, would not be performed until after 1958 when Ligeti left Hungary for Vienna.
The quartet is one of two pieces in which Ligeti was following in the footsteps of Béla Bartók. The solo piano cycle Musica ricercata, composed in 1953, was, in many respects, a prankish response to Bartók’s pedagogical Mikrokosmos collection. This was followed shortly by the string quartet. Ligeti claimed to be inspired by Bartók’s third and fourth quartets, but the attentive listener will appreciate Ligeti’s understanding of all six quartets in Bartók’s cycle. At the same time, the brevity that Musica ricercata refracted out of Mikrokosmos is also present, since the quartet is an uninterrupted series of seventeen short sections, separated by abrupt contrasts.
One could definitely appreciate the influence of Bartók in last night’s performance. Violinists Presler and Kamrin were joined by Lin on viola and Fong on cello. As a group they had a clear sense of how Ligeti had structured the piece into short sections, which were almost aphoristic in nature; and they had no trouble conveying the abrupt mood swings that carry the listener from one section to the next. What was missing, however, was much of that sense of playfulness that had inspired this score, perhaps because the players were just beginning to take charge over Ligeti’s more formidable technical demands.
By contrast the approach to the Brahms Opus 88 was more secure. This is, of course, a more familiar composition; and it is probably also the case that Brahms himself was more secure in working through the underlying logic of his score as a vehicle for some of his warmest expressiveness. Here, too, one encounters contrast as a rhetorical device; and, in the spirit of the late nineteenth century, the performance of some of those mood swings could have been more abrupt. (In this case Tomkins was the cellist joining the two violinists and two violists.) Nevertheless, this was an interpretation that offered a clear account of the maturity of Brahms’ language in 1882; and it made for a satisfying listening experience.
Rohde’s septet was performed both before and after Opus 88. The title refers to one of the surreal faces in Robert Arneson’s Egghead Series of sculptures for the University of California at Davis. The face for “Hear No Evil” has no ears. Rohde’s full title also refers to a thickly-cloaked statement of a phrase from “Simple Gifts” that Aaron Copland used in his score for Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” and a far more explicit statement of the chorale theme for Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 140 cantata, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (awaken, the voice calls to us). All of this is packed into about four minutes of performance. It is difficult to tell how capably it was executed (although Rohde seemed pleased with the result); but the opportunity to listen to the music a second time was definitely welcome.
The Ligeti quartet was “introduced” by the first movement of a concert duo that Edgar Meyer composed for violin and bass in 1998. Meyer is, himself, a virtuoso bass performer with a solid command of a broad variety of genres, ranging from the classical demands of Giovanni Bottesini into the more improvisatory domains of bluegrass and jazz. Since Meyer is also given to prankishness, this selection was a suitable mood-setter for the Ligeti quartet. One got the sense that both Presler and Taddei appreciated the spirit of fun in this music, but the score was a demanding one. One would hope that they stick with this piece for a future performance in which they will be secure enough to take a more relaxed approach and let Meyer’s joyous spirit run a bit wilder.