Friday, May 22, 2009

Moscow String Quartet - Glinka, Gubaidulina, Borodin - 05/21/09

Glinka: String Quartet No 2 in F Major
Gubaidulina: String Trio
Borodin: String Quartet No 2 in D Major
Gubaidulina: String Quartet No 4

Sometimes, it is possible indeed to have too much of a good thing. While I did hope that on my birthday - and for my 100th performance this season! And counting! - I would get to attend a memorable concert, conflicting programs at the Library of Congress and the Freer Gallery of Art caused more frustration than happiness. The Coolidge Auditorium in the former does hold a special place in my heart as it has been the site of so many wonderful memories, but the thought of hearing my beloved String Quartet No 2 by Borodin in the latter played by an all-female Russian ensemble, who should logically know a thing or two about Borodin, trumped the logical choice (Trio Appollon sounded sooooooooo promising!), and my friend Jennifer and I eventually took our seats in the less-than-acoustically-blessed-but-anything-for-Borodin Meyer auditorium on a beautiful spring evening.
Well, as I am getting yet a year older, I am still learning every day that expectations are not always met, but that there are positive lessons to be learnt even from disappointments, and that life goes on. And yesterday's concert was a true case in point.

The first piece by Glinka was harmless enough, but I couldn't help wondering if it would have been played for its merit alone were the composer not considered no less than "the father of art music in Russia". It did contain some pleasant melodic themes, but its lack of originality and the fairly indifferent treatment it got in the hands of the Moscow Quartet definitely made it more of a filler than a full-fledged musical accomplishment.
However, since we found out that the ensemble actually specializes in contemporary music (which, come to think of it, did not bode well for my Borodin), we were expecting good vibrations from the two modern pieces of the evening, which had been written a couple of decades ago by now 77-year old Sofia Gabaidulina, who was sitting with us in the audience. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that if her intensely atonal, mercilessly deconstructed music may be interesting to music theorists, its visceral at best and teeth-grinding at worse nature made listen to it more of a pensum than a pleasure.
The second piece was using plastic balls on the strings, two pre-recorded quartets on tape and colors projected behind the stage, but it didn't help make it more edible. Dissonances abounded and nothing even close to a melody or theme was to be found. Of course, that was not the point, but then again, isn't the point of music to sound good? By that time, a bunch of people had fled after the Borodin, and while I do believe in exposing myself to different experiences, I ended up envying them.
What about the Borodin quartet then? Book-ended by the two Gubaidulina pieces, it sure sounded refreshingly romantic and incredibly melodious, even if the restrained reading it received did not do much justice to its stunning lyricism. The transcendentally luminous Notturno was still enjoyable, but far from the divinely no-holds-bar version I had heard by the all-Russian Atrium Quartet at the Library of Congress back in February.

So, yeah, I wish that this birthday/season milestone celebration had been more climatic, and will be eternally grateful to Jennifer for sticking around through it all. On the other hand, considering all the unforgettable moments I've had so far this season, this is nothing but a minor let-down. Onward and forward!

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