The iO Quartet concert is a series of scenes for string quartet that all challenged the genre at each respective time of publication. That all of these pieces were coming from a decidedly avant-garde slant is a testament to the idea that experimentation with musical form and content can lead to new and wonderful places. Each of these pieces switches gears in novel ways throughout the unfolding of the material. The iO’s tell me that this programming was suggested to them by the composer Helmut Lachenmann ,which speaks to my favorite kind of programming wherein the living composer helps to “curate” the concert; this adds a healthy dose of context, if not influence, to the proceedings.
The context comes from the history of different composers in different times choosing to experiment with the “normal” ways of composing music. Beethoven was already musing on unconventional structures and surprising harmonic shifts for his day. Schubert’s approach was to cast a single voice over layers of shifting texture and gesture, resulting in rapid changes in a “story” we’re being told without words, an excellent entre-act to what unfolds in the first half. I’ve often thought of Webern’s music as a privileged peek into another kind of communication at once very expressive and intimate. His ideas flow in a way that makes perfect sense within itself but comes across to the audience as a private game observed through a kaleidoscope. Lachenmann’s titanic Grido is an essay in ever-shifting textures that hang together with signposts of pulsing and twittering machines that enter briefly to then change the entire landscape again.
Programming thematically allows the audience in on several levels, giving them entre into the composer’s thoughts about the writing of the piece. It’s all dialogue in good music of any stripe, so to hear how these dialogues are set up and then dealt with is the key to becoming a good listener of art music, or any other for that matter. Very often the music that appeals first to our senses is that which is familiar to our ears either because of its popularity or because it’s made up of recognizable rhythms, harmonic progressions and melodies.
In the first half of the program on February 10 we begin with work in the realm of familiarity that then stretches into more experimentation, fragmentation and poetic license with form. The string quartet is put through its paces making sounds in the usual way but with unusual forms. With these ideas thoroughly worked out in the first half, we then have the privilege of hearing the Beethoven with fresh ears. He begins with a muscular opening figure, then shifts gears many times as if to show as many facets of the jewel as possible before giving us a fog-lifting ending accomplished through a surprising shift to F Major, which ends the concert in the tonal way that it began. The beauty and impetuosity of Beethoven’s writing in this short, potent masterpiece cannot be understated; it is a sly work of organizational genius. To have been written when it was took the conviction of a master artist at work with the raw materials of a chamber ensemble that has gone on to reign supreme in the art of chamber music.