Weaving the Acoustic and the Electronic
January 7, 2006 By ALLAN KOZINN
The Ying Quartet has staked out an extended residency at Symphony Space in
recent seasons, and the relationship has clearly worked out for everyone. For
the quartet, the arrangement provides a place to play new works and to try
unusual programming projects. For both the players and their listeners, the
attractively revamped Leonard
Nimoy Thalia has proved an ideally intimate chamber hall. And Symphony Space
not only wins points for adventurousness but also fills seats. For the group's
latest adventure, on Thursday evening, the Thalia was packed.
The Yings -
they are siblings, Timothy and Janet on violins, Phillip on viola and David on
cello - have built some of their programs around combinations of the musical and
the nonmusical. Some of their ideas have been sensible if commonplace (music and
poetry); others have been a bit daffy (music and Chinese noodle-making). This
time, with help from the composer Tod Machover, they hit on a fantastic (and
entirely musical) notion.
First, they commissioned Mr. Machover, who is best
known for electronic works, to write them an almost entirely acoustic quartet,
the only electronic aspect being light amplification to allow for spatial
effects. Then they gave Mr. Machover a free hand to choose the companion works.
Being a composer, Mr. Machover was not content merely to select works by his
colleagues, antique or modern. Mainly, he arranged pieces from outside the
quartet repertory. Among them were a straightforward rendering of Bach's chorale
setting "O Mensch, Bewein' Dein' Sünde Gross" and a more freehand arrangement of
a Bach organ prelude on the same hymn. A deferential transcription of an Agnus
Dei by William Byrd preceded a wild, electronically augmented version of a
Lennon-McCartney classic, "A Day in the Life." Mr. Machover provided a handful
of electronic interludes to link these pieces.
Music originally written for
quartet was included as well. The Yings moved with agility and precision through
Elliott Carter's compact, ethereal "Two Fragments" (1994, 1999) and John Cage's
more meditative "Quietly Flowing Along" (1949-50). Mr. Machover's new quartet,
"... but not simpler ...," is a vigorous, exciting study in speediness, full of
tremolando figures, racing lines and iridescent passages that move too quickly
to grab onto but eventually dissolve into sweetly lyrical phrases.
In a way,
this was the perfect program for the age of the iPod shuffle. Yet the leaps were
more purposeful than random. The Yings opened their program with the first
movement of Beethoven's last quartet, in F (Op. 135), and closed it with the
same work's finale. The music was performed without pause, even for applause,
and instead of program notes, terse but incisive comments on the works were
projected briefly on a screen behind the players. It was as if the musicians and
the audience were eavesdropping as Mr. Machover free-associated, starting with
Beethoven and moving far afield before finding his way back.
Quartet is scheduled to play children's concerts at Symphony Space today at 11
a.m. and 2 p.m. It repeats Tod Machover's work at the Eastman School of Music in
Rochester on Feb. 12.
Roll over, Beethoven: Life's a messy medley
January 7, 2006 By Justin Davidson
Most classical music programs are like a crowded subway train. Works of different origin, size and sensibility are packed together for no better reason than that they fit in the available square footage. The Ying Quartet's concert in the group's nurturing home at Symphony Space on Thursday was a different kind of collection. The composer Tod Machover assembled a dirty dozen pieces, from Bach to The Beatles, to capture how he listens to the world. The centerpiece was a new quartet by Machover, the MIT mad scientist-composer whose inventions include rhythm-keeping squeeze toys, a computerized hyper-violin and an operatic tour of the human brain. Machover is a connoisseur of complexity, but he is mesmerized by Albert Einstein's principle of the elegant theory: "One should always make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." That last clause gave Machover an idea for a string quartet about life - specifically, about piloting between the wired world's avalanche of intricacies and the temptation to unplug in a mountain cabin or on a tropical beach. The result, called " ... but not simpler. . .," is a prayer for a middle way.It is also a work of middling inspiration. It opens at a dead sprint, hurtling through a sequence of mini-episodes for which the composer has given the players a mysterious instruction: "diverse but discrete." He has captured some of the franticness of urban life, but not its cacophony of conflicting demands. More than 40 years ago, Machover's mentor Elliott Carter wrote a string quartet, his Second, in which the instruments talk to, at, past and over each other in a tour-de-force of multitasking. Machover's modernity is simpler: His 15-minute quartet is fast but linear, and it reaches a clearing marked "lyrical and cool" before really earning the respite.But just as the perfect frame can ennoble a so-so painting, the 80-minute program that Machover designed to house his new piece made the evening thoroughly worthwhile. He framed it with the outer movements of Beethoven's F-major string quartet, No. 16, which begins in graceful blitheness and ends in spasms of existential torment. In between, the intrepid Yings followed Machover's meandering pathway through a pleasantly free-associative meditation by John Cage, Carter's two furiously abstract "Fragments for String Quartet," a Bach chorale, a Mass excerpt by the great Renaissance composer William Byrd and a delightfully addled arrangement of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life." This is the Shuffle Mode approach to music history, in which tracks are united by the listener's eclectic taste and a private sense of their relationship. Machover stitched up the package in a series of electronic interludes and an elaborate program essay, but neither was needed. The concert worked because of its quirky disjointedness, the collection of diverse but discrete experiences that make up a modern life.
YING QUARTET. Music by Tod Machover, Beethoven, The Beatles and others. Attended Thursday night, The Thalia at Symphony Space, 95th Street and Broadway.