Saturday, November 1, 2014

Volatile performances in a self-described musical laboratory

As an avid player of string chamber music, this photo caught my eye whilst browsing the website of The Guardian:

There are a few things worth noticing about this photo. Firstly, the violinists and violist of this quartet are standing. This is unusual in the classical music world, where--somewhere along the way--sitting musicians came to signify serious chamber music. Beyond this group’s choice to eschew the comfort of chairs, note the posture of each person in the group. The most unremarkable posture of the group is exhibited by the violist, who despite her lack of absurdity in the context of the group, appears very attentive and involved in the music. The first violinist seems to be all but exploding into the audience, barely holding her bow. The cellist is quite literally holding his bow above his head, presumably having completed a musical gesture he felt compelled to extend into the air. My personal favorite posture of the group is the one displayed by the second violinist: his head inches away from his instrument, this short, blonde man is kneeling toward and looking directly into the audience. These are not normal behaviors of chamber music players today. This is a different kind of ensemble, and it’s obvious even just in this snapshot.

quartet-lab was formed only about a year ago by four musicians who are all respected soloists in their own right: violinists Pekka Kuusisto and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violist Lilli Maijala, and cellist Pieter Wispelwey. Since their formation they have concertized together at such halls as the Wiener Konzerthaus, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and Philharmonie Luxembourg, eliciting glowing reviews. In a given concert, the group will play a masterwork or two of the quartet repertoire and intersperse new music works or musical experiments.

In this article in The Guardian, music blogger Tom Service describes a performance of quartet-lab at Wigmore Hall in London that could be equated to a modern-day version of a vaudeville show, incorporating many different kinds of music and and different mediums of entertainment. One snapshot of the performance shows the group on stage sitting not with stringed instruments, but among gongs and water glasses, holding scores of John Cage’s Living Room Music (and deeply absorbed in performance). George Crumb’s Black Angels followed the Cage. Single movements of solo instrument works by Britten and Ligeti were thrown in for variety. The group performed a musical game (possibly written by Mozart), in which there are many fragments that are intended to be mixed up at the whim of the performer. quartet-lab chose to involve the audience in choosing the fragments to be played and in what order. The four musicians then crowded around a single iPad to read off the particular version of the score the audience created. Service reports quartet-lab’s rendering of Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 4 String Quartet as being “a resolute revelation of an uncomfortable and even incoherent wildness in Beethoven’s music.” He describes the contrasts of loud and soft as being “silvery whispers or desperate yelps,” and the performers’ accents as being “visceral scrapes and tears.” This account might perhaps suggests a more violent interpretation of Beethoven’s music than most listeners might be accustomed to or comfortable with. However, in defense of quartet-lab’s arguable brashness: regardless of whether their choices fall into the mainstream idea of good taste, they brought about distinct and imagerial reactions in at least one audience at Wigmore Hall that night.

This kind of variety performance may be a way to attract newcomers to the concert hall. With many different musical experiences offered, it’s more likely that more audiences will walk away with some sort of positive experience they will tell their friends about. Furthermore, with the decision to involve the audience in a near-collaborative fashion, quartet-lab helped to break down the barrier between performer and audience. And, perhaps most importantly, the group gave a performance that challenged convention and and was highly affecting. quartet-lab is not inventing any new or special kind of concert. Vaudeville has been done before, and audience interaction is nearly an obsession in today's classical music world. However, the group is particularly brave in putting all of these elements together in one concert, and that in itself is inspirational.

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