Saturday, October 4, 2008

Friends of Chamber Music series turns iconoclastic with Brentano String Quartet season opener

By Paul Horsley

Is all great art, on some level, subversive? The Friends of Chamber Music season-opening concert by the Brentano String Quartet on Friday (October 3) made a pretty good case for the notion that upheaval, trauma and icon-toppling have always provided the raw material for art of all kinds. To underscore the point, scattered throughout the Folly Theater was an exhibition, Art of Unrest, of artworks dealing with war, protest, poverty, injustice, mental illness and bigotry.

The centerpiece of the concert was the first local performance of Chicago-based composer Lee Hyla’s Howl, an in-your-face composition from 1994 that features Allen Ginsberg on tape reading his famous epic poem to a harrowing string accompaniment. Hyla’s dense, complex string textures seemed intent on matching the strident ferocity of Ginsberg’s rant, and I must admit the music was at times relentlessly confrontational to both the ear and the mind.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” begins the poem, and goes on to paint one of the wittiest, angriest critiques of modern society. It’s more than half a century old, but you’d never know it. (“Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!”) Hyla has created an effective sonic backdrop that at times underscores Ginsberg’s voice, at times willfully contrasts.

The problem with this performance was that I could understand less than 25 percent of Ginsberg’s recitation, because the speaker volume had been set so that when the quartet played anything above a forte it almost completely obscured his voice. The composer no doubt intended the voice to be drowned part of the time, but on the Nonesuch recording of the piece (which uses a different, more distinct recording of Ginsberg) you can understand far more than I did on Friday. It weakened the piece’s impact to miss so much of this wonderful poem. (There was an “unofficial” printed text available in the foyer, but as the house was dark it was of no use.)

What was fascinating about this concert, however, was that the two pieces of “nice” music that framed the Hyla, by Haydn and Schumann, were actually just as unsettled and subversive. Friends’ founder Cynthia Siebert alluded to this in her comments from the stage, reminding us that great art sets out to “define something that has not been defined by anyone before.” And sure enough, when the Brentanos sat down to begin Haydn’s G-minor Quartet (Op. 20, No. 3), those crazily irregular opening phrases knocked your ears right off of dead-center. Gone were 18th-century images of powdered periwigs and princely entertainment: Suddenly you were reminded that Haydn was as much the revolutionary as Ginsberg or anyone else.

In the 16 years since they started, the Brentanos — violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee — have grown from youthful brilliance to maturity, continuing to deepen and polish their musical understanding to the n’th degree. On Friday they produced some of the most beautifully balanced, well-reasoned playing I’ve heard from them. Haydn’s slow movement was tender and exquisite, reaching a breathtaking height of expressiveness. Likewise Schumann’s unsettled ramblings, in the A-major Quartet (Op. 41, No. 3), were treated to a luxurious rendering that brought me to a new level of appreciation of the piece.

Of course when an achievement operates on such a level, it’s the little things that annoy, like Steinberg’s habit of swallowing the ends of phrases instead of playing them honestly to the last note, or the hairy off-beat accompanying chords in the first movement, which I felt needed sharper focus. Sometimes the Brentanos’ pursuit of subtlety and detail leads to something bordering on preciousness.

But this is a wonderful ensemble, and on Friday they were firing with “all four pistons,” so to speak. The shattering climax of Schumann's second movement, which builds from nothingness to unbelievable intensity, was a concert moment I will not soon forget.

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to