Anton Webern: String Trio, Op. 20
Anton Webern: String Quartet, Op. 28
Marti Epstein: Hidden Flowers
Anton Webern: Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9
Marti Epstein: Phosphenes
Anton Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5
NOVUS NY String Quartet
June is typically the time of the year where I reluctantly have to slow down my performance going schedule due not a lack of will, but to a lack of opportunities, for a couple of months. In all fairness, there is the occasional uplifting email, like the one I got from Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Wall Street, where the director of music and the arts, as well as composer, conductor and keyboardist, Julian Wachner tirelessly comes up with infallibly inventive programming. The one I got last week was about “Time’s Arrow - Webern Part 2”, the second part of a series whose first part I unfortunately missed last fall. Time had definitely come to catch up.
Since these days the historic Trinity Church is mostly off-limit due to a large-scale renovation, all performances have been moved to the equally historic St. Paul’s Chapel, whose own restoration was completed a while ago. Granted, the charming chapel is located a little bit further from my office, but still at a very reasonable walking distance. At least that’s what it looks like on the map, whereas in real life unruly hordes of clueless tourists, harried office workers and stoic locals routinely turn these few blocks into an Olympics-worthy obstacle course.
But it took more than that to discourage me from using my all-important lunch break to go hear some exciting contemporary music from early 20th century Vienna with Anton Webern and early 21st century United States with Marti Epstein. Now that’s what I call “food for the soul”, even if it sometimes has a challenging taste.
As I entered the light-filled, pleasantly cool and interestingly resonant space, the periodic rumbling of MTA trains underneath our feet unmistakably reminding us of our urban setting, Julian Wachner and composer Marti Epstein were wrapping up a short introduction to the program. And then three members of the youthful NOVUS NY String Quartet kicked off the intermission-free, one-hour concert with plenty of audacity and assurance.
Since this series revolved around the music of Austrian serialism pioneer Anton Webern and some of the composers he has inspired, it was only fair to let him get things started with his deceptively inconspicuous, confidently atonal and relentlessly tense String Trio, Op. 20. In short, the perfect illustration of Webern’s radically economical yet richly expressive music.
Next came his String Quartet, Op. 28, whose potentially disarming abstractness evokes some of our basic emotions through the often unusual, precisely calibrated utterances of the instruments. The last piece of chamber music Webern ever wrote, it adroitly combines past and future, subtly relying on the passionate feelings of Late Romanticism while boldly springing forward with ground-breaking techniques, in a tour de force that the NOVUS NY String Quartet expertly performed.
Epstein’s Hidden Flowers took a while to reveal themselves, but there was a lot going on during their long-winded blooming. Enticing us to pay attention to the subtle score while outside noises popped in and out, and then surprising us with a myriad of unexpected tiny details and appealing new sounds, the composer also allowed us to find the beauty within.
Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 looks like a lot on paper, but true to their qualifiers, the six miniature movements came and went in about five minutes. That did not prevent each of them from displaying their own personalities in highly dramatic fashion, even when the music was actually very quiet. Just like waters, still music can run deep.
Sticking to the same principle of “Less is more”, Epstein’s Phosphenes lasted only four minutes, during which the seemingly random occurrences of exacting pointillism produced by the musicians turned out to be as fleeting and illusory as the spots of light that appear when the eyes are closed.
Webern’s restless exploration of atonality reached a new level with his Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, whose expansive first movement contains a whole world of musical sounds in itself. From heart-felt nostalgia to assertive pizzicatos to ethereal calm, the four musicians handled them all with disconcerting ease. The next four movements distinguished themselves by their brevity and came out respectively as hushed, agitated, lyrical and gloomy, the last one featuring some stunning — and stunningly dark — lines for the cello, before ending in an inexorable whisper. And then it was back to real life.