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In performance: Alexander and Afiara Quartets

Web-only review:

Music for eight instruments demonstrates that less is more
by Joan Reinthaler

Concerts these days are expected to last two hours, but less would have been more (and better) had the Alexander and the Afiara String Quartets simply dropped the Martinu String Sextet from their collaborative program at the Library of Congress on Friday. They had already offered so much to think about and savor in Lou Harrison's String Quartet Set (played by the Alexander foursome) and in John Zorn's dizzying "Cat o' Nine Tails" (played by the Afiara ensemble). They had framed these two with Julia Wolfe's clunky "Mink Stole" (played by violinist Zakarias Grafilo and guest pianist Aglika Angelova) and Aleksandra Vrebalov's passionate but cliché-ridden "Pannonia Boundless" and put a finishing stamp on everything with Shostakovich's decisive and sparkling Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11. Besides feeling like an overweight intruder in this company, the Martinu, delivered with rhythmic fuzziness and violin-viola imbalance, was the only poorly played music on the program.
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The five pieces in Harrison's set (premiered in 1979) have their roots variously in medieval and Renaissance Europe and Turkey. Harrison treats his material with the lightest of touches, keeping textures remarkably clean and their essential characters always in view through a kaleidoscopic lens of off-set rhythms, spiced-up harmonies and unexpected contrapuntal twists. The Alexandria musicians handled this with a delicacy and restraint that, nevertheless, preserved momentum, and their performance projected both pleasure and enthusiasm.

Had Zorn's "Cat o' Nine Tails" been written more recently (it's on a 1993 Kronos Quartet CD), it could be a poster child for a musician's version of twittering. It unfurls a sequence of dozens of brief ideas, expressed in spurts of sound effects to accompany someone's (presumably the composer's) distractible stream of consciousness. With a sort of Ivesian ability to conjure up mental pictures, Zorn gives us a few seconds of chases and stately processions, cartoon silliness and Bronx cheers, snatches of well-known classical pieces, false endings, and beginnings that have a hard time getting started. It's both witty and canny and it had the audience in stitches.

-- Joan Reinthaler

By Anne Midgette  |  April 19, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  | Tags: Library of Congress, Reinthaler, String quartet  
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