The Chamber Music Society at Yale began a 2001-02 season of concerts by world-class chamber ensembles Tuesday night with a program featuring the Colorado String Quartet and oboist Richard Killmer. In honor of the Tercentennial, the society’s season is devoted to the artistry of Yale musicians; Killmer is a new member of the School of Music faculty, and violinist Julie Rosenfeld MUS ’82 of the Colorado Quartet is a graduate of the School.
The first work on the program was by another Yale alumnus, Charles Ives, Class of 1898. To most musicians, the name Ives conjures huge chords colliding in glorious metrical chaos as a trumpet sounds some old American hymn above, but his String Quartet No. 1 fits that description only vaguely. Written in 1896, when the 22-year-old was an undergraduate, the piece is clearly an immature work, marked by the structural looseness and awkward instrumental writing of a relatively inexperienced composer.
There are flashes of the mature Ives in places. At the end of the last movement, for example, two themes play off each other in different meters, and the generally contrapuntal language of the piece is not without its entrancing dissonances. Also the whole piece is based on hymns and folk songs. But in several places the dissonances and unorthodoxies sound clumsy rather than bold — something is missing.
In particular, the quartet emphasizes by its absence those qualities which distinguish the Ives of later decades as a genius: a cosmic stubbornness and an audible determination to destroy concert halls, instruments and music itself in order to get his point across. The confidence of the confrontational later works is lacking in this student piece. It is worth hearing, but primarily for historical reasons.
Whatever its merits, though, this music is by no means easy to bring off, and the musicians of the Colorado Quartet (Rosenfeld, second violinist Deborah Redding, violist Marka Gustavsson, and cellist Diane Chaplin) brought panache and a rich, woody tone to a problematic work.
Another student piece followed the Ives, but it was written by a composer who showed his musical gifts at a far earlier age. Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet op. 2 brought Killmer together with Rosenfeld, Gustavsson and Chaplin in a piece written while the composer was a 19-year-old student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in London. It is undoubtedly a more mature work than Ives’ quartet: more innovative, more effective in structure, and more daring in texture.
Whispered string dialogues lead to a broad oboe melody, and repeated gestures quickly blossom out into larger sections. The distinctive timbre of the oboe is difficult to reconcile with the homogeneous strings, but Britten maintains enough textural variety that the oboe never seems like an intruder on a self-sufficient string trio. He unites several disparate thematic areas into a single movement with convincing results. Almost without fail the music features exposed textures, solos and daunting technical challenges, which the four players again brought off without apparent difficulty. Oboist Killmer in particular managed his exposed, virtuosic lines with great artistry, contributing to a pleasingly nuanced and well-paced performance.
The second half of the program was Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major op. 59 No. 1. This long and very difficult work finally provoked some audible fatigue in the performers as they dropped the occasional note and gave way to slippery intonation and loose rhythm.
Despite the adverse conditions, the Colorado Quartet seemed determined to make the Beethoven memorable, and it was. Tempos were either very fast or very slow, and dynamics and accents were consistently underlined. This can result in almost comical mannerism, but the performers managed instead to convey a convincing sense of urgency and freshness. After all, these often-performed works can easily become stale, no matter the confounding newness with which they confronted listeners in the nineteenth century.
It would have been refreshing to hear Beethoven’s pianissimos had they been audible. Sprague Hall is undergoing renovations this year, so the entire Chamber Music Society season will take place in Battell Chapel. Battell is a reasonable performance space, but no piece of music can hold its own against the constant stream of emergency vehicles and motorcycles without mufflers that pour down Elm Street every evening.
The concert concluded with an encore dedicated to the victims of Sept. 11: a touchingly lyrical rendition of an arrangement of Bach’s “Air on the G String,” from his Orchestral Suite No. 2. It was performed, unfortunately, against an unintended backdrop of delighted screams and whoops as hordes of singing groups selected their next generation for all to hear.