Saturday, November 15, 2014 found the Lyris Quartet at the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on North La Brea for a Music and Conversations concert. Surrounded by the art of Bruce Richards and a selection of Casa Torelli wines, about 75 people turned out to hear the music of Arvo Part, Jane Brockman – who also produced the concert – and a Beethoven string quartet. Eric Jacobs, playing clarinet and bass clarinet, joined the Lyris Quartet for the first two pieces.
The opening piece of the concert was Es Sang vor langen Jahren, by Arvo Pärt. This is scored for strings and countertenor but for this performance Eric Jacobs played the voice part on bass clarinet from offstage. This was an effective substitution and gave the piece a folk-like character that was at once charming and mysterious. The opening stringendo in the strings was offset by a slow, solemn melody from the bass clarinet. These passages were echoed in the strings from time to time and a pedal tone in the cello was most effective in setting an introspective mood. Variations added some drama, especially in the lower strings, that also included some spare – but lovely – harmonies, and a peaceful feel. The playing by the Lyris Quartet was right on target, and the strong clear tone of the bass clarinet was especially soulful. Es Sang vor langen Jahren was nicely played throughout and the higher registers of the bass clarinet proved to be a good choice for realizing the vocal line.
Scenes from Lemuria by Jane Brockman followed and in her remarks Ms. Brockman disclosed that her training was in New York as part of the academic “uptown” scene of the late 20th century. Writing what she irreverently referred to as ‘root canal music’, the move to Los Angeles around the year 2000 had, she explained, mellowed her sound somewhat. Scenes from Lemuria began with a high, arcing clarinet line by Eric Jacobs that was soon joined by a series of rapid string passages that gave a bustling feeling of movement and motion. The clarinet and strings went back and forth and the contrasting dynamics were especially effective. Although animated and bright, this piece conveys an optimistic feel that could be described as mellow. The interior harmonies were nicely balanced and full, giving a warm feeling that often morphed into a more exotic sound. Although complex and lively at times, Scenes from Lemuria is ultimately an inviting and welcoming experience. The playing was accurate and precise, a credit to both the Lyris Quartet and Eric Jacobs who had to cover a lot of material.
The final piece in the concert was Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 in Bb major. This is one of Beethoven’s later works, composed when he was fully deaf. It consists of six movements instead of the usual four, and there are two possible final movements. The playing in the opening movement was solid with good precision in the faster sections and also had a smooth, romantic feel that was, at times, sunny and optimistic. In the second movement the fast passages and close harmonies were navigated with the necessary skill and care – there was a detectible wit and playfulness that came through nicely. The third movement was slower and more deliberate with the melody line in the violin rising agreeably to the top of the texture with good balance below. The dance-like fourth movement contained some complex rhythms and a melody that was passed effortlessly between the players while the more empathetic and slower tempos highlighted the pathos present in the fifth movement.
For this performance the Lyris Quartet elected to play the original Grosse Fugue for the last movement. The first playing of this movement generated such an uproar that Beethoven was convinced by his publisher to write an alternate version. The Grosse Fugue has a lot of moving parts – four subjects in all – and a big, almost harsh sound. There is a complex and frenetic feel to this and the Lyris Quartet looked to be intently focused. This is challenging music with meandering and interweaving passages that arguably might have prefigured early 20th century music. From our vantage point today the Grosse Fugue is certainly very forward looking for its time.
The next Music and Conversations concert will take place in early 2015.