Hopeful Music 

The Blair School of Music’s resident quartet pairs Beethoven with a new commission by Nashville composer Michael Alec Rose

The Blair School of Music’s resident quartet pairs Beethoven with a new commission by Nashville composer Michael Alec Rose

Blair String Quartet

8 p.m. Feb. 7

Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music

For information, call 322-7651

The resident quartet at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, the Blair String Quartet functions chiefly to educate students. Its programs are governed by the need to enable apprentice musicians to hear canonized traditional masterworks as well as music by living composers who are, in August Mason’s vivid phrase, “a new edge on the leaf.” Thus the BSQ regularly perform the full cycle of Beethoven and Bartók string quartets, and they also perform works from the avant-garde’s cutting edge. Three of the members—violinists Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard and violist John Kochanowski—have been together for 15 years; cellist Felix Wang joined them in 1999. Their musicianship, individually and together, is superb.

This weekend they present a characteristic program. It opens with a late Beethoven string quartet, the Opus 130; it closes with the first ever performance of a composition for piano and string quartet by their colleague Michael Alec Rose. Craig Nies will play the piano.

The Beethoven exists in two versions: the one the composer wanted, and the one his publisher insisted on, with a much briefer and less contrapuntal final movement. The BSQ will play what the composer wanted, with a fugue finale paying homage to J.S. Bach. In this original version, five diverse movements lead to a grand, sinewy concluding fugue growing out of a terse motive closely akin to the figure Bach used for his own Art of Fugue. As recorded by the Budapest Quartet, Beethoven’s preferred finale runs some 16 minutes, about as long as the quartet’s first three movements combined. Its size, muscularity and grace bring to mind a famous photo of NFL running back Herschel Walker in black tights doing ballet with a dainty danseuse in a white tutu.

Of the six movements, the first identifies the two kinds of textures, chordal and contrapuntal, the whole will be made of. The succeeding movements develop and transform these materials. The fifth, marked “slow and very expressive,” has a lovely, hymn-like farewell quality, as if commemorating ripe old age after a rich full life. It is followed by the virile grand fugue that brings the quartet to a robustly affirmative conclusion.

Michael Alec Rose uses a different musical idiom. Though he proclaims himself a Romantic, and names Beethoven as the sorcerer to whom he is apprentice, he does not sound like Beethoven. He has his own distinctively spacious and kinetic musical language.

Rose has produced a considerable body of work and garnered some impressive prizes. He has written four string quartets, one premiered by the BSQ, and three orchestral works premiered by the Nashville Symphony. He has composed three solo works and a piano concerto for pianist Craig Nies. This is his first piano quintet—a genre given its standard form by Schumann and Brahms at the end of the 19th century. A number of 20th century composers used it, most notably perhaps Shostakovich and Schnittke. Rose respects the legacy from his forebears, but metabolizes that legacy into his own fresh voice.

Rose’s quintet is not “programmatic” in the strict sense—the music doesn’t exactly imply a story or suggest specific images—but it does use titles. The whole bears a metaphoric title, “A Grammar of Hope.” And in a working draft of the score I examined, each of the five movements had a Hebrew name: Gilgul, Tillul, Hillul, Tiltul and Tziltzul. This subtly rhyming sequence translates as Change, Dewfall, Praise, Wandering and Music. Each title, for Rose, represents an idea in some sense connate with hope. The sequence itself is a kind of metaphoric pentachord.

The Hebrew words activate resonances ancient and modern, reaching from the story of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac to the story of Ariel Sharon and Yassir Arafat. But the stories from the Hebrew Bible have so thoroughly pervaded Western art and literature that this set of rhyming terms works like the obelisk in the film 2001, as a fundamental and occult pedal point for the composition as a whole. Moreover, each successive movement assimilates the one before, so that as the work develops, music itself comes to embody hope.

The structure of Rose’s piece, a sequence of contrasting movements, would be familiar to Haydn and Mozart. And as in Schumann and Brahms, the five players are all peers, their roles closely interwoven throughout. But the musical substance is new. Christian Teal notes the extraordinary diversity of tone colors requested in the score: bowing and plucking and strumming, and striking the strings with the wood of the bow. Just as significantly, Rose uses these colors in freshly inventive ways.

At press time, I had heard only two movements actually performed—Tillul (Dewfall) and Hillul (Praise). Both were lovely and moving, but Hillul, the quintet’s third movement, was especially beautiful. Marked “glacially slow,” it delivered a grand, hymn-like sound, incorporating modal glides suggesting Middle Eastern flutes and ancient resonances into a texture laced with piquant dissonance. This praiseful movement was not an exultant shouted alleluia; it was a quiet, awe-filled joyful thanksgiving. If this movement existed alone, the title’s announced hope would be corroborated.

At first blush, Beethoven’s quartet and Rose’s quintet seem an unlikely pairing. In fact, they identify and amplify each other remarkably, revealing surprising affinities among several of the movements. The Beethoven has analogies with the late “unfinished” Michelangelo sculptures in which heroic muscular figures emerge from partly hewn stone; the Rose suggests the visionary paintings of Andrew Wyeth, or perhaps the magically evocative rectangles-within-rectangles of Josef Albers’ mid-20th-century series “Homage to the Square.” Beethoven is pridefully, even aggressively self-assertive; Rose more modestly displays his sorcery, which more subtly exerts its force. And in the Praise movement of “A Grammar of Hope,” that force is formidable.

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