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Where Music Mountain meets the Ether

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jun 24th, 2019

Saúl Bitrán, Arón Bitrán, Sally Pinkas, Javier Montiel, Álvaro Bitrán 

After fourteen years of not composing string quartets, Heitor Villa-Lobos returned to the genre in 1931 to compose another string quartet. While he promoted the idea that his music was usually based upon folk motifs, this branding concept was mostly, grossly, fictional although successful, however, the Fifth Quartet (of seventeen) is based upon South American folk material transformed by melodic minimalism.

 Cuarteto LatinoAmericano happens to be the reigning authority on Villa-Lobos’ with their six-disc box set of quartets (nominated for a Grammy Award) earning them manifold plaudits. While Villa-Lobos is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, he suffers the posthumous fate of not being played much in this country. Since the Brazilian composer wrote over 2,000 compositions, some confusion rises from his prolific output, as well as his whimsical humor.

Saúl Bitrán’s eloquent violin dominated the slow first movement with spare lyricism that employs Portuguese children’s melodies. The second movement’s rapid rhythms were inundated with pizzicato where violist Javier Montiel excelled; this painterly soundscape conjured pointillist rainfall in the jungle. The slow opening of the third movement evokes indigenous rhythms that freight mystery and return to the opening melody of the first movement. The rollicking Allegro of the fourth movement offers an anthology of Portuguese children’s songs in the same key as the opening movement but in double time. This interplay of high-spirited Portuguese children’s tunes and melancholy Amazonian melodies appears to celebrate a naïve perspective on life, while turning the sophisticated intellectual agenda of minimalism inside out.

Composer Amir Bitran (b. 1993) is a biophysicist finishing his doctoral degree at Harvard University; he has been composing since 2005. The quartet played the World Première of Kol Haneshama for Piano Quintet (2018), which is based upon the phrase “Let everything that has breath” from Psalm 150. This work was propulsive, syncopated jazz based upon melodic recollections of Jewish liturgical music. Pianist Sally Pinkas accompanied with harmonic edge. This composition was lively, humorous, marvelously original. The whole world will want to hear more music from Amir and I look forward to hearing him.

String Quartet #5 (1991) by Phillip Glass was recorded by Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch Records in 1995. Kronos placed #5 as first play in order to showcase its importance. Trademark slow repetitions with minor variations that confidently shift amid mild harmonic tensions grindingly build to climax. As usual the music remains deeply meditative. This quartet features more rhythmic shifts, allowing for wider dynamics than many of his other works. The soaring melodies of the concluding fifth movement seem to vanish into a joyful ethereal emptiness, as if asserting that an escape into Nirvana is quite possible. The performance rose to the transcendental shelf with Álvaro Bitrán's cello leading the spiral path.

Robert Schumann’s great Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842) rounded out this extraordinary afternoon. At thirty-two Schumann was still only known as the husband of the pianist Clara Wieck. Inspired by Mendelssohn and Schubert, Robert turned ambitiously to unprofitable chamber music. The first movement provides a bewildering riot of Romantic motifs led by Pinkas on piano; this pairing of the piano with quartet is commonly said to be the invention of a new genre.

Clara, the dedicatee, was to play the first private performance but fell ill and Mendelssohn stepped in to play after a quick sight-reading; he offered some critique to improve the work. The melancholy second movement, nearly funereal, appears to record the near-death of their daughter Marie who suffered from a long illness earlier that winter. The Scherzo with its ascending and descending scales permitted the violins of brothers Saúl and Arón Bitrán to romp with the fluid piano explosions of Pinkas. The full force of a thundering freight train at the finale presents a fugue based upon the piece’s opening melody. While one feels like one is going back to the beginning, one also feels like one is being propelled into some Romantic, incantatory future.

All the compositions chosen for this concert were linked by the theme of transcendence rooted in a simplicity encased in echoing or escalating ironies—perhaps something like a child’s first meditative experience in playing with a matryoshka where the bracketing complexities of life become reduced to the wonder of a child first looking at the wonder of Creation.  

Next Saturday Music Mountain will go cabaret at Gordon Hall with Steve Ross at a new concert time of 5 pm. Next Sunday afternoon at Music Mountain will feature Arianna String Quartet with a program of Richard Young, Viola HUGO WOLF: Italian Serenade (1887); SCHUBERT: String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden” (1824); MENDELSSOHN: Viola Quintet in B Flat Major, Op. 87 (1845).