Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Alexander String Quartet & Robert Greenberg

Alexander String Quartet & Robert Greenberg
Saturday, May 17 10:00 AM
Herbst Theatre
Franz Schubert, String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden”
George Crumb, Black Angels (Images I) for electric string quartet

I think 10:00am is too early for audiences & musicians, & apparently it's too early for the venue as well. The doors to the auditorium didn't open until barely 5 minutes to 10:00, due to "technical difficulties". The stage was encumbered by microphone stands, extra chairs, a huge tangle of power cords, 2 gongs & a grand piano, most of this clearly for the Crumb piece. Already it made me think that what was state-of-the-art & avant-garde in 1970 now looks quaintly dated.

The format is for Greenberg & the quartet to come on stage together. Greenberg speaks for about 25 minutes before each piece. The quartet provides musical excerpts at appropriate moments. There was a grand piano on stage for the 1st half, just so Greenberg coudd play a few chords from the lieder version of Death & the Maiden. The entire concert lasted almost 2½ hours, including intermission, so it's perhaps a bit longer than a typical chamber recital.

For the Schubert, Greenberg provided a brief biographical sketch of the composer & related the quartet to the context of Schubert's long illness & death. For the Crumb, Greenberg pointed out the quartet's explicit connection to the Vietnam War, its long quotation from the Schubert quartet, & some of its unusual performance requirements.

The quartet's ensemble certainly feels like a conversation among equals. I liked the bite of the 1st violinist's playing. A quartet has to be pretty game for the Crumb piece, & one is kept busy just watching them. The are asked to hit gongs, bow on tuned glasses, play maracas & do left hand pizzicato at the same time, shout & play at the same time & even bow on the fingerboard on the "wrong" side of the fingering hand. This last effect is supposed to sound like a concert of viols. There's also selective amplification of the instruments. The quiet end of the piece left the audience uncertain it was safe to applaud until the 1st violinist closed his music.

This was definitely an older audience. I was in the middle of a row that had an elderly woman seated at each end. Since neither one of them seemed inclined to moved after the end of the performance, we were trapped for a considerable amount of time afterwards.

Greenberg himself is very much the image of the New York baby-boomer. He made a parallel between the Vietnam War era & today, & he got applause for expressing an election-time wish for a new administration based on truth & decency. As far as his musical commentary, I think I got just as much background from the printed program notes. I was glad to have a chance to hear the Crumb piece, though. It's wide-ranging in both its technique & emotional range, going from the strident & violent to the eerily beautiful.

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