Friday, September 2, 2016

BISQC, day 5

Today's was the strangest concert of the entire week, though its equivalent is held at every edition of this string quartet competition. BISQC commissions a Canadian composer, a different one each time, to write a new work for string quartet, and then all ten competing quartets play it in a marathon concert. Although the work is short - this year's was nine minutes - the concert lasted, including two intermissions and a break to fix a broken string, over three hours. Some people bailed at the first intermission, but most of us survived the whole megillah. It's like Chinese water torture, except that water torture is rarely this interesting.

This year's composer was the unforgettably-named Zosha Di Castri, one of the few living Canadian composers I'd already heard of. (The third such to have this commission over the history of the festival.) She's a modernist experimentalist, which is probably a good thing in the circumstances, because it puts the players through their toughest paces. Rumor has it that the judges (all string players themselves) reacted to a sight of the score with devout thanks that they weren't the ones who had to play it. That score was made available to attendees a couple days ago; I bought a copy and had been studying it with bugged-out eyes. There's ornate configurations and all kinds of effects, repeated passages of quick long glissandi (which come out as squiggly sounds), notes played arco and pizzicato simultaneously, cut-off rests, violent explosions labeled "wild, improvisatory", and so on. I rather wondered what the instruction "[cresc. mark] sfz" on isolated notes would sound like; it turned out to sound like tiny bits of tape loop played backwards, a la mid-period Beatles.

Over the course of ten performances, I grew to anticipate certain landmarks: the sudden fortissimos; the parts where I had to watch the first violin carefully or else I'd lose my place; the two-bar rest for viola and cello, otherwise known as "violist and cellist frantically turn the page"; the arrival of the "Extremely Delicate" coda.

Each quartet played it slightly differently, though there were no major variations in tempo or mood. But some violists took the passages of repeated strums behind the bridge as an opportunity for a forthright twang, while others modulated it more subtly, and the brief consonant dotted-rhythm double stops passages for second violin could be the drone from Scottish folk music or a high metallic cry. Nobody made any major mistakes other than letting a string break; and I won't be ranking or evaluating the individual groups on this piece. Music like this is a bit beyond calling the performance good or bad.

In the evening, the competitors got a break as the sound of a piano was heard for the first time all week. Jon Kimura Parker joined the most distinguished of recent BISQC laureates, the Dover Quartet, in Brahms' Piano Quintet, one of my favorite works. The Dovers also played Smetana's First Quartet. Thoroughly righteous and enjoyable, and the hall is beginning to get really packed.

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