Tonight, soprano Elissa Johnston will join the Lyris Quartet at Monk Space for what’s sure to be a beautiful night of music. In anticipation of the quickly approaching concert, I had the opportunity to interview Lyris Quartet members Alyssa Park (violin), Shalini Vijayan (violin), and Luke Maurer (viola) about the program, thoughts on collaboration, and more. Here’s what they said:
The program contains a set of lyrical, moving, and experimental works from a variety of composers, including Arvo Pärt, Pin Hsin Lin, John Tavener, David Hertzberg, and Evan Beigel. From a programming perspective, how do the pieces relate to each other, and/or how do they contrast?
Perhaps the unity of the concept for this program lies in the reflective and complex writings of each composer. Each of these pieces have their own unique meditative quality which is not to say that they lack power. On the contrary, because of the subtleties and contrasts within each piece, it creates a haunting beauty. We hope this selection of composers and their pieces will help the listener look inward and be able to escape all the chaos around us…to be in the moment and just feel. (Alyssa)
How often do you perform with vocalists? What has the process of collaborating with soprano Elissa Johnston been like?
We’ve had the opportunity to work with vocalists in a number of different settings. As the featured string quartet on Long Beach Opera’s production of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field several seasons ago, we had the rare chance to support an entire cast of vocalists. That said, when we get the chance to work with a singer in an intimate setting such as this, it is always a special treat. The beauty of the voice is the ideal to which all instrumentalists aspire, in phrasing, tone and timbre. Elissa is always such a joy to work with because she can grasp such a wide array of styles with her captivating voice. Not to mention, that she is a fabulous person and really fun to be around! (Shalini)
Both you and Elissa Johnston are known for performing a wide variety of works, both from the classical canon as well as living composers. Has this repertoire informed your playing in any ways you’d be interested in sharing?
We do have a great foundation of having played many of the celebrated works for quartet together, and it’s always great to revisit pieces from past eras after working on those from this century. We are fortunate to often have the chance to work directly with composers on new music for quartet. Indeed, three of the pieces on Tuesday’s program are by composers right here in Los Angeles! Years of collaboration with many composers definitely has expanded our own individual instrumental technique, and it has built up our ability as a group to listen and react to each other. (Luke)
For more information about the concert or to get tickets, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space.
On Saturday, June 10, 2017 the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on fashionable North La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles hosted a Music & Conversations concert featuring the Lyris Quartet and vocalist Moira Smiley. An overflow crowd packed the venue, sampling Casa Torelli fine wines and previewing works of the upcoming “Artists of Mexico” exhibition. Contemporary music by Moira Smiley and Jane Brockman was on the concert program as well as String Quartet No. 15 by Franz Schubert.
Selections from the Mikrokosmos, by Béla Bartók – as arranged by Moira Smiley – began the concert, with Mikrokosmos #148 – 1st Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm up first. This opened with a strong repeating cello line accompanied by clapping. The violin took up the repeating figure and Ms. Smiley entered with an active vocalese that had a bit of an edge to it, much like scat singing. The hard consonants and clipped delivery was reminiscent of an Eastern European language and proved to be very expressive. At times Ms. Smiley’s voice soared eloquently over the tutti strings, weaving in and out of the busy texture. This is a nicely rhythmic piece with a good vocal presence. Mikrokosmos #75 – Summer Has Come followed and for this Ms. Smiley supplied the lyrics in English. This began with slow, sustained tones in the upper strings followed by counterpoint in the cello. The vocal melody entered with “Summer has come” and was smoothly sung as the strings portrayed a pastoral, organic feel matching the sense of the lyrics. A nice contrast to the opening piece.
Mikrokosmos #74 – ‘The Hat’ was next and opened with a series of pizzicato figures in the upper strings that gave this a fast start, matched by lively vocals. Ms. Smiley had a small accordion and this added to the exotic feel. A violin duo – ‘Bagpipes’ – commenced and this filled the performance space with rapid fiddling that sounded more like twice as many players. The insistent vocals added to the energy as a second violin duo – ‘Mamaros’ – emerged without pause. Mikrokosmos #75 proved to be a rousing portrait of what might have been a Saturday night in any rural Hungarian village square.
Silverlake followed, an original work by Moira Smiley adapted from a text by Charles Wesley that, according to her website, describes “ the wakefulness that comes in the early AM – as the mind wrestles with the questions of fate & divinity.” A repeating pizzicato figure in the cello opens Silverlake, with slower tones in the upper strings. Ms. Smiley’s soprano voice entered above with a beautiful legato melody.
This was completely unlike the previous pieces with their vocalese and sharp edges. The singing here was clear and pleasingly fluid, recalling Judy Collins. Towards the finish a bit of anxiety crept in, but the strings took up smooth tutti passages that created some lovely harmonies with the voice. With the strings and voice perfectly complimenting each other, Silverlake is an exquisitely charming work.
Time Cycles, by Jane Brockman was next, a song cycle in three parts for string quartet and voice with lyrics by Lois Becker. Hurricane Housekeeping was first, and this began with a rapidly repeating tutti figure in the strings, soon taken up by the voice, producing a palpable tempus fugit feel. Quick pizzicato passages added to the sense of breathlessness as Ms. Smiley sang “Time is on the wing…” Later, cyclic rhythms in the strings brought briefly to mind certain sections of Different Trains by Steve Reich. “We are swept along…” fittingly, was heard just before the finish. To anyone who has tried to prepare for company, Hurricane Housekeeping is the perfect musical metaphor.
The Mayfly Rag followed, and this was a more playful and somewhat less harried piece. “Carpe Diem” was heard in the vocals at the start and the brisk pizzicato in the strings gave Mayfly Rag a buoyant, yet purposeful feel. The mayfly, of course, has a very short lifespan and you might expect that this would make for a darkly fatalistic outlook. This music, however, is appealingly upbeat and confident, happily trying to cram all the experiences of life into a single joyous moment. The tag line at the ending was also brightly amusing: “A mayfly lives for just a day… Don’t snooze!”
The Turning of the Seasons completed the three-movement cycle and this, of course, took in a much longer view than The Mayfly Rag. The Turning of the Seasons has a more serious and introspective tone, especially for autumn. An echo of Vivaldi could be heard in the winter section with its flurry of sharp passages. The balance of strings and voice was excellent and the precise playing of the Lyris quartet throughout made for a well-crafted performance. At the finish Ms. Smiley’s expressive voice again soared over the texture, dramatically proclaiming “The cycle does not end…” Time Cycles is an engaging and stimulating look at the way we experience time from three different perspectives. The applause that followed was sincere and enthusiastic.
The balance of the evening was given over to the sprawling String Quartet No. 15 in G Major by Franz Schubert. The Lyris Quartet was on familiar historical footing here, with the phrasing, balance and dynamics all carefully calibrated. The acoustics of the Rutberg Gallery came through once again – even the delicate pianissimo passages were clearly heard in the back row. The 1st movement, Allegro molto moderato, unfolded with all its variety of forcefulness and subtlety intact. The active sections filled the space with sound, as if two string quartets were present. The smooth Andante un poco moto ambled along at just the right tempo, revealing some lovely harmonies and the occasional bit of drama. The lively Scherzo: Allegro vivace was precisely played and the dynamic contrasts all strictly observed. The catchy melody in the recapitulation was particularly well done. The final Allegro assai, although taken at a brisk tempo, was light and nimble and the syncopated sections artfully negotiated. Intense at times, but always under control, the 40+ minutes of non-stop Schubert in the warm gallery was quite a workout for the Lyris Quartet, whose efforts were repaid with a standing ovation.
The success of Music and Conversations concerts comes from just the right mix of an interesting venue, a sociable atmosphere, and good music. Credit for this must go to Jane Brockman and Jack Rutberg who have worked hard to prepare these concert events. The attendance is invariably standing-room only, and the thoughtful programming is always accessible and enlightening, combining exciting new music with familiar classics.
On Saturday, November 12, 2016 Music and Conversations presented the Lyris Quartet in a concert of music ranging from Bach and Mozart to Shostakovich, along with new contemporary works by Jane Brockman and Billy Childs. The Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on La Brea was the venue and an overflow crowd filled every available seat for the occasion.
Timothy Loo, cellist for the Lyris Quartet was first, performing the Prelude from Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009 by J.S. Bach. This began with a lovely deep sound in the warm lower registers followed quickly by a series of ascending scales. The detailed ornamentation and the precise articulation was especially easy to follow in the cozy acoustics of the gallery. The tempo was brisk – almost urgent at times – but the optimism and elegance inherent in Suite No. 3 never faltered while under the care of Mr. Loo.
Duo No. 1 in G, K. 423 (version for viola and cello) by Mozart followed. Timothy Loo was joined by Luke Maurer, violist for the Lyris Quartet. By way of introduction, Maurer explained that Michael Haydn had been commissioned by the Archbishop of Salzburg in the summer of 1783 to write six duos, but Haydn fell ill and had only finished four. Mozart offered to complete the remaining two for his friend, and Duo No. 1 in G is the first of these. The piece begins with light, active passages in the viola with a nice counterpoint in the cello. The tempo was brisk and the resulting texture light and frothy – textbook Mozart. Maurer and Loo maintained good coordination as the quick melody alternated with more moderate sections, and they never let the pace slacken or drag.
The Adagio movement followed providing a slower, more relaxed contrast to the opening, but even here the delicate proportions and almost weightless feel of the harmonies carries the listener effortlessly along. The intonation was rock solid. The Rondo:Allegro movement finished the piece and returned to the rapid tempo and closely intertwined rhythms. The quick passages in the viola were particularly well played and the intimate acoustics complimented the overall balance. The bright and sunny feel of this movement persisted to the conclusion, prompting the audience to enthusiastically applaud a fine effort.
Unrequited, the new Billy Childs string quartet was next, with violinists Shalini Vijayan and Alyssa Park joining the others on stage. Unrequited is one of four new pieces commissioned by the Lyris Quartet, all written as a commentary or reflection on String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Leoš Janáček. Janáček was inspired by his long and close friendship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman some 38 years younger, with whom over 700 letters were exchanged over a span of 11 years. As Mr. Childs noted in his introductory remarks, this relationship never moved to the next level, and the tragedy of love unfulfilled was uppermost in the mind of the composer while writing this piece. Unrequited begins with long, sustained chords full of wistful sadness. The harmonies are very expressive and the inner details were brought out nicely by the gallery acoustics. This piece was performed at a recent Jacaranda event in a much larger hall and the difference is striking – the interior structure of this piece is well crafted and very beautiful. At times there were faster, more complex sections that suggested a sense of tension or anxiety, but Unrequited always returns to a feeling of achingly mournful disappointment. A final melancholy chord of sad acceptance completes this remarkable work.
beneath the surface of a sea of silence by Jane Brockman followed, based on two lines from the poem Fireflies by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore:
“The world is the ever-changing foam
that floats on the surface of a sea of silence.”
This begins with high trills in the violins and an active melody that has a driving, rhythmic feel, although never overpowering. This sense of purposeful intent continues forward, with occasional hints of tension arising in the harmony. A nice series of tutti trills changes the texture to a mystical shimmering before returning to the more deliberate marcato. An elegant violin solo precedes another series of tutti trills. beneath the surface of a sea of silence proceeds in this way, with slower, more dramatic sections alternating with somewhat faster passages that move persistently ahead. All are interspersed with tutti pizzicato or trills that break into the moment and prepare the listener for the next sequence. beneath the surface of a sea of silence contains all of the mystery and restlessness of the sea, artfully capturing the contrasting relationship of contemplation and movement.
The final work of the concert was String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 by Dimitri Shostakovich. Written over just three days in July, 1960 it is dedicated to ‘the victims of fascism and the war’. Alyssa Park explained that rehearsals of this piece took on a cathartic dimension given recent political events here. The opening movement, Largo, begins with a solemn cello line, picked up, in turn, by the viola and violins. Soft, sustained chords add to the gloomy feel and a sad violin solo arose that was expressively played by Ms. Park. The reflective tempo abruptly ended and a series of frenetic passages of the Allegro molto movement ensued, intense and furious – almost like being under attack. The Lyris Quartet played this with resolute precision, and the close spaces of the gallery seemed barely able to contain the dynamic energy. The dance-like rhythms of the Allegretto movement relieved the tension somewhat and these were given just the right amount of airiness and lyricism. The anxiety and darkness reappeared, however, in the 4th movement with smooth, quietly powerful passages interspersed with short, rapid tutti strokes. The final Largo movement continued in this slower, dirge-like manner and the piece ended with a sad cello solo that faded quietly away. String Quartet No. 8 is a compact and impressively intense work, played with great emotion in this performance. The Lyris Quartet received a long standing ovation for their superb effort.
The next Music and Conversations concert is on March 18, 2017.
The Lyris Quartet has just released a new CD titled Intimate Letters, featuring the Billy Childs piece Unrequited.
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.
Next weekend the second annual HEAR NOW festival kicks off in Venice with two days of concerts featuring some of our little city’s best-known composers and an impressively large lineup of local players. Artistic director Hugh Levick had some time this weekend to fill us in on what’s coming up.
We’re less than a week from the festival. How’s it shaping up?
Frankly, Nick, I think we’re looking at two standing-room-only concerts. There are still tickets left, but they are going fast. With Mark Robson playing Thomas Ades, The Lyris quartet playing Don Davis, Burt Goldstein and Veronika Krausas, Don Crockett’s incredible piano trio Night Scenes performed by Joanne Pearce Martin, Shalini Vijayan & Ira Glansbeek (just to mention a few of the highlights) these are going to be two very hot concerts. 15 composers, 25 musicians – we’re all stoked!
As I understand it, this is only the festival’s second year. Tell me about how things got started.
The concept when it was initially conceived was ‘here now gone tomorrow’. Tim Loo and I had been talking about it for a couple years. Let’s hear what’s here now before it’s gone tomorrow. And we knew there was a lot here. Many composers were writing wonderful music and much of it was rarely being heard.
This brave and adventuresome music is hidden away, and the complex, intriguing, exuberant value that it offers has been more or less excluded from the common space of our culture.
Time is a choreography of ruptures, junctions, bifurcations, explosions, cataclysms, and crises. The fissures in Time break the continuum of History in which we live thus allowing the HERE NOW to be shot through with splinters of messianic hope—or, glimmers of light in the dark, which is what we hope The HEAR NOW Festival will be.
What’s different about the festival this year? Were there any things you’ve changed specifically as a result of the experience of the first year?
Except for Bill Kraft, Gernot Wolfgang and myself, all the composers are different from the ones who presented work last year. Gernot amd Gloria Cheng have joined Bill Kraft and the Lyris Quartet as artistic advisors. Ira Glansbeek, Erica Duke-Fitzpatrick, M.B. Gordy, Heather Clark, Suzan Hanson and Mark Robson did not perform last year. Experience taught us that we didn’t have to print up paper fliers–just postcard size and 12X18 posters, and that it would be better to have the 2 concerts on 2 different days rather than, as last year, one at 2PM and one at 8PM. Thanks to Eric Jacobs we have a website. Rather than a Kawai piano this year we have – thanks to Gloria Cheng – a Steinway. One thing regretfully that has NOT changed is that it looks as if – we are still trying to reverse this – the LA Times will not be reviewing the HEAR NOW Festival.
The lineup of musicians on this is really, really impressive. Have you found local performers eager to join in?
As you say, Nick, the players are simply world-class. Every one of them has enthusiastically embraced HEAR NOW. The festival is creating a community of players and composers who want to make contemporary composition and performance into a significant presence here in Los Angeles. Our city is a center of contemporary classical music – this is a simple reality. More people should know about it and have the opportunity to experience it.
I have to ask, partially because I’m a fan of his, but mainly because I’m curious about the logic here. Every single composer on the program lives or is primarily active in Los Angeles, with the exception of only one! Why Thomas Ades?
Thomas Ades now has a home in Los Angeles. He has a position, perhaps it’s ‘Composer-in-Residence’ (?), with the LA Phil.
Well then, learn something new every day. I know that HEAR NOW has curated at least one event outside of the festival. Where do you see the organization heading in the future?
The event of which you are speaking was a fund-raiser in March of this year. Mark Swed was the headliner and, interviewed by Martin Perlich, he was fascinating. It looks like we will be having another fundraiser in December, this one headlined by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will be working with the LA Phil at that time. Eventually we would like to get to a situation where we can have the festival two weekends running – one weekend in Venice and the following weekend in a more eastern venue – downtown or Pasadena… We also envisage having,as well as the festival, one or two concerts a year which would feature the music of individual composers. First half Vera Ivanova, for instance; second half, Bill Kraft. Something like that…
That’d be rad. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Saturday the 25th, one week from today at 8 PM is the first HEAR NOW Festival concert; one week from tomorrow, Sunday the 26th at 5PM is the second HEAR NOW Festival concert. There are still some tickets available. You can purchase tickets at our website, www.hearnowmusicfestival.com.
Thank you, Nick, for asking!!