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Lark Quartet in their Prime at Thirty

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Tue May 2nd, 2017

Caroline Stinson, Deborah Buck, Basia Danilow, Kathryn Lockwood

Who knew that contemporary American composers might hold their own on the same stage as Claude Debussy and Felix Mendelssohn? Music might be less complicated and more fun than one might think. The Lark Quartet commissioned Andrew Waggoner for an octet and John Harbison for a quartet. They were premièred at Weill Auditorium at Carnegie Hall on Monday night. (Well, the Harbison composition was played last Saturday night for the Candlelight Society in Washington D.C.)

But first the Lark Quartet began with Debussy’s only quartet, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. Opening with the same four notes as Edvard Grieg’s only surviving string quartet, Debussy was out to show how it really could be done. This remains a difficult piece to play because of its seemingly chaotic digressions amid 1/8 notes and the ornamented coloration characteristic of Debussy at his best. Debussy employs circular form while traversing a medley of styles ranging from polyphonic church music to gypsy tunes, folk tunes to Javanese gamelan sounds, while alluding to Massenet and Cesar Frank. The emphatic 4/4 rhythms of the first movement in Phyrigian mode creates much excitement with the violins. The following happy scherzo employs excellent pizzicato that concludes with satisfactory coda. Kathryn Lockwood’s viola came to the fore in the third movement, while Caroline Stinson’s cello shone in the marvelous fourth movement, which ends with a frenetic Finale in 2/2. Amid the switching of keys, rhythms, melodies, and unusual harmonies, Debussy demands more than one listen, and so this quartet offers a landmark classic performed to polished perfection.

A hard act to follow it was. Yet Andrew Waggoner forged original music with accessible program. Ce morceau de tissu for two quartets pitted the original founding members of the Lark Quartet against its current members. The program and title derives from the work of the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, who is a devout Muslim while being a champion of modernism—rejecting fundamentalism. The title ("This little piece of fabric") refers to the hijab (which is not in the Qur'an). Former members of the Lark Quartet played and advocated a more traditional classical style, while current members performed with more modern scrapings that slightly abused their instruments, silences, and sounds that I could never imagine a quartet might achieve. This was fresh, dynamic, and so lively I was transfixed by each note. Amid the back-and-forth argument, the two violas joined in a gritty, mutual showdown. Violas rarely receive such spotlight treatment.  A modified truce agreement greeted the Finale, yet one knew that the modernists had really won because their music was so much more interesting and, yes, exciting. Waggoner’s brilliant octet is sure to enter the classical repertoire.

John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 6 was more traditional in structure while freighting modern sounds. In the opening movement first violinist Deborah Buck played from the back of the concert hall, moved to a station near the stage, and eventually rose to the stage, joining the trio to make a proper quartet. Ambitious separation led to co-operation. In the second movement the ghost of Bártok from his sixth string quartet lingers. Bártok was ill during this composition and melancholy arrives in all seriousness. In the third movement a couple of mysterious American patriarchs appear to cure an illness. Echoing Elgar’s Enigma Variations, I guess that one of these is the motif C F, that being  the Copland Fund, of which Harbison was president for fifteen years; the other being B F, the Bogliasco Foundation, of which he is a trustee. These two “doctors” of the arts happily cure the patient from despair while conflicting musical themes find resolution in the Finale, yet the Finale does not report traditional resounding resolution. A question mark hangs suspended in musical air as the trio raises their bows to answer the first violin, yet the bows remain suspended in air. In silence we imagine the chord to be struck, but it is never struck, and so lingers with paradoxically more effect than had that chord been struck. Harbison was allusively traditional while toying with modern mechanisms.

For exhilarating conclusion, this current Lark Octet played the Presto from Mendelssohn’s famous Octet. As Encore, they played Gershwin’s lighthearted “He Says, She Says,” which appears in the musical Funny Girl. While the Lark Quartet has reached the near-perfect age of thirty, they play with fresh spring air and mature vivacity.