Ives: String Quartet No 2
Crawford-Seeger: String Quartet
Steven Mackey: Physical Property - Steven Mackey (Electric Guitar)
Depending on the capacity in which I participate in Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood concerts, I may or may not be able to give my undivided attention to the performance. So I was particularly excited, last Sunday, to hear that I would have the possibility to fully focus on the fascinating program presenting the reputedly fearless Jack Quartet, who would later be joined by Special Guest electric guitarist Steven Mackey. As part of Carnegie Hall’s American Maverick series, the playlist included out-of-the-box works by modernist composers such as Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford-Seeger and… Steven Mackey. The presence of The Village Voice and the fact that the concert would be recorded confirming the hotness of the event, I happily took my spot in the lovely Playhouse of the Abrons Art Center at Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side .
I am by now well aware of the density of Charles Ives’ œuvre and can therefore better prepare myself for whatever work of his that will be performed. With time this has been become an easier and more rewarding process, making me always more eager for farther exploration. His String Quartet No 2 opens slowly, but already features the four tense, agitated voices deep into the combative discussions that give its title to the first movement. The second movement sees the continuation of what sounds by then like an all-out quarrel with the second violin vainly trying to stand out as the voice of reason. It will all eventually ends in transcendental peace and harmony. True to their raison d’être, the quartet did not shy from the theoretical or emotional complexity of the piece, including the harsh dissonances, and let all the messiness of human nature come out brazenly alive and wickedly kicking.
Another contemporary American composer whose music deals with human emotions, of a more schizophrenic type this time, is Ruth Crawford-Seeger. Here again, it is best to brace oneself to survive the unsettling experience, always keeping in mind that an unexpected reward may very well materialize at some point. And sure enough, just as I was bravely working my way through all the turbulence, out of the short fourth movement suddenly appeared a blissfully, unabashedly lyrical first violin, like a soothing ray of light rising from the disturbing mental darkness.
The critic who claimed 20 years ago that Steven Mackey’s quirky combination of electric guitar and classical strings, Physical Property, was a bad idea and that the best thing about it was that it would never be heard again has probably been eating his heart out for quite a while now. As the popularity of this unusual, yes, but unquestionably successful alliance has proven, open-mindedness is not always the experts’ forte, and it is their loss. Last Sunday afternoon, the composer/electric guitarist and the classical quartet got together to play this energetic musical adventure, which quickly won everybody over with its infectious rhythms and fascinating textures. Another proof that artistic freedom and compositional boldness are to be nurtured, not suppressed. Steven Mackey: 1. Critic: 0.