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Rzewski at Miller Theater

Music review
by Stephen Kaye
Mon Apr 23rd, 2018

Miller Theater at Columbia University

Not many critics have the opportunity to write about Frederic Rzewski because his music is not often played, although he has been writing music since we shared space at a New England prep school in the middle of the previous century. One of his early pieces, dated 1955, was written when he was 17. It was given its premiere Thursday night at Columbia’s Miller Theater. It was a string quartet with six movements and filled a space of near 40 minutes—rather impressive for a teenager. The composer was on hand to assure us that he had never heard it played and didn't’t know that it even existed, since he had long ago misplaced the manuscript. It was found lodged in the Library of Congress. 

As Rzewski mentions in his amusing introduction (printed in the program), the music is highly derivative. How many quartets has one heard at the age of 17? In this case,  Beethoven, for sure, and Ravel, Bartok, and Schoenberg. They are all here in form and in phrases. The writing is free and open and easy to play. Members of the Del Sol String Quartet from San Francisco saw its lightheartedness and lyrical qualities as charming.  

Rzewski says of his work, “I can only assume that this music has something to do with love, especially the unhappy sort….it looks like the work of a talented student, with all the strong and weak elements typical of such students.” He has served as professor at many colleges and universities, so knows student work when he sees it. “It is easy to spot where the composer is pretending, simply borrowing clichés he has seen in this or that score by this or that composer, but really doesn’t know anything about all these ridiculous glissandi, for example, or the places marked ‘sul pontecello’ etc.,  when it is obvious he knows nothing about string technique.  If I were his teacher, I would tell him to strike this stuff out immediately.  But it is too late for that….”

The second quartet was of his mature period when he was near 80. One hopes one is mature by that period, yet it has many of the same lyrical qualities as the earlier piece, a similar playfulness, some outright references, some petty thievery. It is called “Words” because words are spoken by the players, words that express social or political issues words that “simply happened to be going through my head while I was writing the music” explains Rzewski in the notes. “I just liked the idea of a talking quartet. Why not?” The words are sparse and are well placed in the music to achieve their best effect. You might recognize them: “When the mighty have fallen, then are fallen many.”  He says they are from Samuel 2, 1. Then he quotes from Julian Beck, Gorky’s reminiscence of Lenin speaking about Beethoven, Giuseppe Chiari, and then Chekhov: “Who knows? You can’t know everything.  Only what you need to know in order to survive, and that is all you can know.” The piece ends with the sound of a cow mooing. A video recording of Rzewski appears below.

The Del Sol String Quartet is composed of Rick Shinozaki and Benjamin Kreith, violins; Charlton Lee, viola; Kathryn Bates, cello.  They are from San Francisco and devote much of their time to playing contemporary music.  If there is a lesson here, it is that string quartets do not have to be all that serious; there can be humor in music, as in life. Why not?