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Adventures in Music
By Edward Ortiz

Flux Quartet
Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., Nov. 16

Few chamber music ensembles have the tenacity and spunk to take on the music of Ornette Coleman, John Zorn and Alfred Schnittke in one evening—and make it look effortless. Attempting the unconventional—with ease—is one of the many talents of the New York-based Flux Quartet, who performed an exhilarating program of chamber music at Williams College’s Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall last Saturday.

This ensemble, whose members met while at the Juilliard School, takes the music of living American composers very seriously. The Flux betrayed that sentiment in 1999 by undertaking Morton Feldman’s Second String Quartet—a work that demanded they play a 124-page score over six hours. Although no such mammoth undertakings were in order Saturday evening, there was enough masterly playing and brilliance to fill any concert hall.

The high point of the concert came early with the moving and introspective String Quartet No. 2 by Schnittke. This work opens with a barely perceptible note on the violin, an opening that demands its player evoke a delicate and haunting quality from his instrument. Such qualities are to be found in the playing of Flux founder and violinist Tom Chiu, who occasionally rose out of his chair during fervent passages of the evening’s music. Chiu’s tone was crystal clear and bright, his interpretations passionate. In fact, passion is a characteristic in no short supply among violinist Jesse Mills, violist Max Mandel and cellist Darrett Adkins. The powerful and rich sound of Mandel’s viola added to the disorienting and stark quality of Schnittke’s work, especially during the third movement—Schnittke’s quartet ends like it begins, with a single tone. It’s one of the most chilling endings in the chamber repertoire, and Chiu made it memorable by coaxing overtones from his instrument.

No piece establishes how intensely this group of musicians embraces current American chamber music as well as John Zorn’s Cat O’Nine Tails, which closed the evening. Zorn’s piece is, undoubtedly, a work that demands that certain notions about chamber music be exploded. The overall effect of the music is akin to walking through Times Square after having spent a year in solitary confinement. It’s a high-energy, lightning-paced amalgam of sonority. It’s safe to say that Cat is not recommended for the meek string player. In Cat, the buttery sound of bow caressing strings quickly gives way to the metal-upon-metal scratch of bow tearing into strings. Banging of instruments and coughing are part of the music. The frenetic blend of musical ideas includes the wail of free-form music and the charm of bluegrass. It’s part Schoenberg, part Texas swing. No sound proved too far from the grasp of the group. Cellist Adkins distinguished himself as a master at producing unconventional tones by making his cello sound like Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster one moment and a carnival whistle the next. It was a stellar display of what stringed instruments can do once freed of musical conventions.

The same virtuosity was brought to bear on Ileana Perez Velazquez’s evocative and dynamic Duendes Alados. Duendes lays some if its ideas out among its players like a flower for pollination. Its rich and multilayered musical textures were developed with urgency and cohesiveness by the players. And the quartet bridged no quarter in its approach to plumbing the violent aggressiveness and mischievousness of Ornette Coleman’s “Poets and Writers.”

The amazing thing about this quartet is their deeply humanistic approach to intimidating music. In their hands, the chamber-music concert feels less like a stodgy challenge and more like the musical venue for the young and maverick.

Hot Buttered Strings

Budapest Strings
Union College Memorial Chapel, Nov. 13

There’s no simple explanation for the buttery, burnished sound we heard last week in Union College’s Memorial Chapel. The warm acoustics there help, but you’re still dealing with an ensemble of string players, and the mechanics of producing those notes aren’t promising.

Your bow is strung with horsehair, each strand sporting a microscopic series of hooks you’ve stiffened with rosin. The strings themselves are wound in thin metal strands that are plucked by those hooks, but plucked so quickly and repeatedly that a continuous tone emerges. With no frets to demarcate the fingerboard, only ear training and muscle memory tell you where your fingers should land—all of it a recipe for disaster, as anyone who’s heard the struggles of a beginning string player can attest.

That an attractive sound can emerge at all is impressive; that a group like the Budapest Strings can meld the playing of 16 individuals into a single instrument is awesome.

There’s a film of violinist Jascha Heifetz demonstrating to a class that Bach’s solo violin Chaconne should be thought of foremost as a dance—and he performs a few dance steps to it. The Budapest Strings established a bright, danceable tempo for Purcell’s Chacony, an agreeable piece that served to introduce the sound and sensibility of the ensemble. This and the Bach that followed were not going to be heavily ornamented, historically informed performances, and nothing wrong with that: A tight string ensemble can make any music come alive.

Pianist Frederic Chiu, who has been involved in such diverse projects as recordings of all the Prokofiev sonatas and Chopin mazurkas, dove into Bach’s Concerto in d minor with splendid passion. Where Purcell was polite, this was a full-bodied, full-bore work with a performance to match. Solo lines are very exposed (it has a probable heritage as a violin concerto), and Chiu brought an Art Tatumlike technique to the keyboard. The pulse wasn’t fully shared at the start of the second movement, an adagio, as if too much of that preceding allegro lingered, but it soon found its groove and set things up for the lively allegro that finishes the piece. Beautiful dynamic changes informed the playing, exemplified when Chiu took an intimate arpeggio into a crescendo with the just the right amount of orchestral backing before the finale.

Mozart’s Divertimento in F Major seems to start with a simple, bare-faced sonata allegro with lots of arpeggiated triads, but like most of Mozart’s music, that masks a compelling complexity. It’s lovely, but like anything that’s truly attractive, it has a hint of mystery. Three brief movements culminate in a vigorous presto. Faultless playing.

As I listened to the only scheduled work by a Hungarian composer, Mark Rózsavölgyi’s Three Csárdás, I thought it might be a prank. Rózsavölgyi died in 1848, according to the notes, yet these pieces sounded much more stylistically and harmonically advanced. But he was for real, I confirmed, and it’s an indication of how fine a composer he was—but try finding any recordings of his many, many works. With an interpretation calling for much rubato, as befits this native Hungarian dance, the musicians put a lot of body English into their playing.

During the opening of Dvorák’s Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22, I wished for a bigger bass sound from the group. One string bass and three cellos weren’t quite able to deliver all the low voices that shore up this work, but in all other respects it was tremendously impressive, and that burnished sound was at its shiniest here. The opening movement is so charming that if it were a marriage proposal you’d immediately assent; it’s followed by one of those minor-key waltzes so typical of the composer.

In fact, this piece is so laden with melody and excitement that it seems ready to end by the third movement—but there are two more to go, with a thrilling payoff at the concluding allegro vivace.

The group gave two encores: a scherzo by Leo Weiner that demonstrated how well the group can trill in unison (very difficult to do), and a Casals setting of a Catalan folksong that gave cellist Károly Botvay a chance to show off a magnificent tone and technique.

—B.A. Nilsson

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