Review: Euler Quartet at Art Share

On Sunday, January 31, 2016, the Euler Quartet performed five string pieces at Art Share LA in a concert entitled Pixels. This was the inaugural concert for the Euler Quartet and a full crowd turned out on a blustery winter evening to hear contemporary music from five different Los Angeles area composers.

The Euler Quartet at ArtShare

The Euler Quartet at ArtShare

Toccata (for amplified string quartet) by David Aguila was first. This began with two successive high, thin pitches in the violins, sustained and differing just slightly in pitch. The cello joined in with a low, foundational tone and the amplified viola then entered with a continuous middle pitch that completed some beautiful harmonies. The viola began to ascend and a thin haze of distortion emerged from the interaction of the various upper partials. There was a mostly relaxed feel to this, even as the viola pitch ascended toward a siren-like howl the cello continued with a steady, calming presence in the lower registers. The viola climbed still higher, its amplification dominating the texture with a screeching that invoked a distinct sense of anxiety. The violins pulled back to reveal the viola now at its squealing apex, issuing varying and tenuous melodies that hovered indistinctly in the air; the pitches at times were so high that it sounded like the whistling of the wind. The ensemble and pitch quality throughout, especially by violist Benjamin Bartelt, was remarkably precise and controlled. Toccata is an intense study of the relationships and interaction of pitches at the extremes of string instrument intonation.

Scenes from my Parents’ Cocktail Party by Max Mueller followed. This piece is based on the childhood recollections of the composer sneaking downstairs during a party hosted by his parents in their suburban home. Mueller is an accomplished film composer and this piece has the breezy nostalgia of a vintage sitcom sound track. Mango Salsa, a strong, up-tempo tutti section that begins the piece, nicely invokes the hurried preparations of an imminent house party. The busy passages and tight ensemble were perfectly matched in this stylish and jazzy opening. The Two People Flirting, section II, has a slower, more elegant feel and features some lush harmonies. There is a more formal and stately pace to this – the party has started and the guests have arrived. Candles on the Porch, section III, slows further and adds a touch of solemnity, perhaps the sharing of some sad news among friends. The Bickering Couple, the final section, returns to the fast pace of the opening with rapid, spiky runs in the violin that capture the inevitable result of long-held grudges combined with too much alcohol. Scenes from my Parents’ Cocktail Party is a well crafted and accessible musical portrait of a vivid childhood memory.

64 Colors, by Sara Cubarsi, was next and this work was inspired by a collection of 64 three-note harmonies commonly used by 20th century string players such as Pablo Casals, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. According to the program notes: “…this piece selects those which contain at least one just interval (in extended just intonation) within each trichord… These 64 chords are then inverted twice as the structural frame of the piece, consisting of three chorales.” The opening chords contained some lovely harmony; soft, tentative and quiet with a spare, solemn feel. As the piece progressed, new harmonic colors emerged while the pace and texture was very much in keeping with the chorale tradition. Some of the passages felt perhaps a bit remote, others strong and dramatic while at other times a darker color prevailed, adding a bit of sadness. The playing was well balanced and the pitches tightly controlled so that the harmonies never felt alien or unsettled. 64 Colors is an ambitious – and ultimately successful – exploration of the possibilities of harmonic expression that incorporate unorthodox intervals without slighting historically informed sensibilities.

Luminosity studies (for scordatura string quartet) by Haosi Howard Chen followed and misty, the first of three movements, began with high trills in the violins accompanied by slower and sustained tones in the viola and cello. This was brimming with energy, an exciting sound with active attacks in each phrase that increased in intensity right up to the finish. The second movement, bleak, opened with high, airy sounds in the violins followed by a suddenly powerful tutti chord. The feeling here was perhaps more tentative and included a bit of drama and tension. The final movement, effaced, was a series of active tutti passages with a flood of notes, the feeling was reminiscent of looking at a stormy sea filled with choppy swells. The players navigated these difficult passages with care and an admirably tight ensemble. As Chen writes in the program notes, ‘…this work is an exploration of textural nuance through the different contextualization of similar pitch and timbre materials.” Luminosity studies is an artfully conceived and challenging piece, skillfully performed by the Euler Quartet.

The final piece on the program was Take the Forest, For Example… by Edward Park. This began with a series of precise pizzicato chords, full of motion and vitality. There is a somewhat more conventional feel to this work, with some really lovely harmonies emerging as the piece progressed. The playing was polished and disciplined with good rhythmic movement. A lovely violin solo emerged, soaring gracefully over the busyness of the texture, followed by a dramatic viola passage as the tempo slowed somewhat. A cello solo added a dark solemnity to the coloring and a nicely played tutti chord that was repeated added effectively to a sense of sadness. The playing at this point was expressively beautiful, and with a crescendo the pace returned to the bright activity of the opening to conclude the work. Take the Forest, For Example… is full of varied sentiments and emotions, each artfully revealed and elegantly played.

The Euler Quartet put on a polished concert, thoughtfully programmed and performed with skill and poise. They will be a solid addition to the new music landscape in Los Angeles.

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