On Saturday, October 8, 2016 Jacaranda Music presented a pre-season event titled Intimate Letters featuring the Lyris Quartet in a concert preview of their new CD by the same name. Intimate Letters contains newly-commissioned pieces by four different composers, each writing a work of musical commentary and reflection on String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Leoš Janáček. “Intimate Letters” is the nickname given by Janáček to this piece, inspired by his long and close friendship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman some 38 years younger with whom over 700 letters were exchanged during a span of 11 years. The practice of commissioning new works that look to the past has lately become fashionable, and this project by Jacaranda and the Lyris Quartet involved composers Bruce Broughton, Billy Childs, Peter Knell and Kurt Rohde. The four world premieres comprised the first half of the concert, and a performance of String Quartet No. 2 by Janáček followed the intermission. The spacious sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica was mostly filled for the concert and the event included an after-party that was held in the adjacent courtyard.
The first piece in the program was Fancies, by Bruce Broughton, who wrote in the program notes: “Fancies is essentially a rhapsody/fantasia built upon the opening figures [of String Quartet No. 2 ], the most obvious being a motor rhythm that reappears throughout the piece.” Accordingly, Fancies began with a strong, repeating tutti figure, complete with rapid runs and lively trills. The tempo was brisk, but not frenetic, and the clean playing by the Lyris Quartet gave a solid coherence to the ensemble. The busy sections morphed and mutated as the piece progressed, alternating, at times, with slower stretches that often had a tinge of questioning doubt. Of all the new pieces on the program, Fancies seemed the most closely related to the early 20th century music of Janáček in form and gesture. Mr. Broughton is a well-known composer of film scores and TV themes; his versatility and craftsmanship make Fancies a vivid re-imagining of the Janáček style.
Intimate Voices, by Peter Knell, followed and in many ways this was the converse of the Broughton piece, opening with a slow, soft chord and sustained pitches. Intimate Voices is built around four notes, G, C, F# and D, that appear as the viola solo heard in the first minute of the first movement of String Quartet No. 2. This has a delicate, nuanced quality that is calm and settled, like drifting along at sea on a windless day. As the piece progressed the tempo occasionally moved ahead, but always returned to the slower, more deliberate pace of the opening. The long tones allowed for some lovely harmonies to develop and the playing by the Lyris Quartet was full and balanced. Intimate Voices is a serene and peaceful work, artfully developed from just a tiny fragment of the Janáček composition.
Inside voice, by Kurt Rohde was next and this began with a rapid series of strong tutti phrases, nicely realized with precise playing. Stretches of sustained tones appeared among the busier sections, but overall the feel was actively robust and searching. As Kurt Rohde writes: “At the onset, inside voice has a clear focus; it is intent on a specific course only to become distracted; it comes into focus then develops a new interest.” There were strongly syncopated passages that on occasion were separated by a few moments of silence; you could see that the players maintained good visual communication in order to coordinate their entrances properly. As the piece moved forward – through both the smoothly harmonic and the briskly complex – the sections seemed to evolve from feelings of expectation, to isolation, to anxiety and finally, exasperation at the finish. Inside voice is a technically challenging piece, ably played by the Lyris Quartet, and one that accurately captures the varied emotions and restless character of String Quartet No. 2.
Unrequited, by Billy Childs was the final new piece performed, and this opened warmly with lush harmonies and slow, sustained phrases. At times one could hear a tinge of remoteness and even loneliness in the passages. This had a sad – almost melancholy – feel, as Billy Childs noted in the program notes: “The first thing – the only thing, really – that popped into my mind was the tragedy of unrequited love.” The harmony and counterpoint were effectively matched and perhaps a bit more conventionally familiar as compared to the other pieces on the program. As Unrequited progressed, it became, at times, more actively complex and these sections were nicely navigated by the Lyris Quartet. At other times it turned dramatic, mysterious or quietly plaintive. Towards the finish, a haunting viola solo arose and was passed to the violins as the piece concluded on long, mournful chord. Unrequited is a masterful recounting of the essential emotions underlying String Quartet No. 2.
After the intermission, all four movements of String Quartet No. 2 by Leoš Janáček. “Intimate Letters” were performed. Billy Childs described this piece perfectly in the program notes: “The first time I heard Janáček’s quartet performed live, the emotion of the piece jumped out at me: the wild shifts of tempo, the beautiful and plaintive melodies, the stark dynamic contrasts.” All of this was brought brilliantly to life in the playing of the Lyris Quartet. The changing moods – from a bright, strident feel to the calm and settled passages to dramatic uncertainty – were fully explored with precision and intensity. More significantly, the full performance of String Quartet No. 2 illuminated the newly-commissioned pieces in a way that revealed the essential character of each.
In commissioning this look at String Quartet No. 2 through the artistry of four contemporary composers, the Lyris Quartet has found an important way to engage Jacaranda subscribers in the support of original new music. Whatever your view on the drawing of artistic inspiration from masterpieces of the past, the excellence of these new works, the masterful playing of the Lyris Quartet and the engaging subject matter insured the success of the Intimate Letters concert.
The Lyris Quartet will perform the Intimate Letters concert again on Tuesday, October 25, 2016 – 8pm at Monk Space in Koreatown.
The Lyris Quartet is:
Alyssa Park, violin
Shalini Vijayan, violin
Luke Maurer, viola
Timothy Loo, cello