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Partch: Daphne of the Dunes

The 21st annual MicroFest season finale featured a performance of Daphne of the Dunes, by Harry Partch, as well as quartets by Ben Johnston. Every seat was filled at REDCAT for the June 16, 2018 concert, the second of two shows on consecutive days.

The program opened with Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9 (1988), performed by the Lyris Quartet. A one-time Partch apprentice, Johnston absorbed the theory of just intonation, but lacked the practical skills to create new instruments in the manner of his mentor. Johnston, however, successfully applied the new tuning to more traditional forms, and String Quartet No. 9 is one of his later and most accomplished examples.

The first movement, Strong, calm, slow begins appropriately with a long viola tone, soon joined by the other strings in beautiful harmony. A more lively stretch follows, pleasantly complex with some fine counterpoint. The playing by the Lyris Quartet here is characteristically precise and balanced. Strong sustained chords are again heard, and tutti tremolos begin a stretch that includes an uplifting, ethereal harmony at the finish of this long, invigorating movement. Fast, elated, the second movement, has a busy feel in the violins with a nicely syncopated melody in the cello. The violins take up the melody and it acquires an actively strident feel with a faster pace and interleaving parts, all carefully played by the Lyris Quartet.

The third movement, Slow, expressive, is just that, with a smoothly flowing feel reminiscent of an old hymn tune. The harmony is wonderfully balanced and full; Johnston’s mastery of the classical form is on full display. The final movement, Vigorous and defiant, is full of strong tutti phrasing and briskly interwoven passages. A perfect contrast to the reserved third movement, this unleashes the full technical range of the Lyris Quartet. At one point a fugue breaks out among the players as the piece seesaws between resolute declaration and intricate lines among the parts in a rousing finish. String Quartet No. 9 is a masterwork, artfully bridging the brave new world of just intonation with the familiar form of the string quartet – and doing credit to both.

The American premiere of Octet (1999/2000), also by Ben Johnston, followed, and the Lyris quartet was augmented by a flute, clarinet, bassoon and bass. Octet is based on Ashokan Farewell, the 1982 composition by folk musician Jay Unger, and is the tune that gained wide recognition as the theme for The Civil War miniseries, by Ken Burns. The structure of Octet is a straightforward theme with variations, beginning with the familiar melody in a flute solo, accompanied by a low drone in the bass. The melody is picked up by the clarinet with a lovely flute descant and soon the strings enter in a warm harmony. All is soft and sweet as the bassoon enters for an extended variation that adds just a hint of tension. A strong tutti section with new and unusual harmonies is heard, but this flows as a natural extension of the previous variations. The flute, expressively played by Sara Andon,  dominates once again with the opening melody, as the piece quietly concludes. Octet is a masterful combination of formal structure and innovative harmony, grounded in solid fundamentals yet guiding the listener to entirely new, yet comfortably reassuring surroundings.

Daphne of the Dunes (1967), by Harry Partch, followed the intermission on a stage crowded with his amazing musical inventions. There was the Gourd Tree, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Boo and Diamond Marimba as well as many others. Choreographers Casebolt and Smith began with a preamble describing the outlines of the plot, based on a Greco-Roman myth of uncontrolled desire and pursuit. A large screen at the rear of the stage displayed classic paintings relating to the story in a video by Joel Smith. The music begins, full of motion and distress as Apollo, smitten by Cupid’s arrow, begins his quest of Daphne, the beautiful river sprite. The predominance of percussive sounds and the exotic tuning created the perfect primal accompaniment to this ancient story. At the entrance of Daphne, the music becomes more strident and purposeful but turns tentative and solemn as she also receives an arrow from Cupid. The pace picks up again as the chase begins, and the images on the screen are taken from the movie ‘North by Northwest.’ On stage, Daphne is seen disguised as a modern spy, complete with sunglasses and kerchief, moving about and even hiding among the musicians. The chase continues as the two make their way out into the audience and towards the exits.

The musicians, meanwhile, are seen moving from station to station, playing new combinations of instruments. The intriguing colors and textures of the music are always engaging, and the precision in the playing was remarkable given the fast tempos and unfamiliar instruments. As Apollo closes in on Daphne the music becomes tense and anxious. In an inspired bit of staging, Daphne retreats to Partch’s Gourd Tree and, merging herself into the wood of the tree, finally eludes her lustful pursuer. In the poignant final scene, a woman is seen gardening with her husband, and together they are planting small trees. Daphne of the Dunes is an amazing retelling of an old story that succeeds brilliantly with contemporary instrumentation, imagery and choreography. That MicroFest LA could mount a technically complex production of such high quality was recognized by the enthusiastic applause from the big crowd

The concert concluded with Partch’s Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions (1968). Based on Partch’s own experiences as a hobo, Barstow is a colorful account of the challenges and personalities encountered on the open highway. The difficulties and frustrations of a Depression-era tramp would seem better served by dramatic tragedy, but Barstow is full of goodnatured banter and sharply drawn characterizations that are completely absent of malice. The music is surprisingly lively and upbeat, with the narrations and playing perfectly paired. A great cheer went up from the audience upon hearing those immortal words: ”Gentlemen: Go to five-thirty East Lemon Avenue, Monrovia, California, for an easy handout.” Barstow was the perfect ending to an impressive concert of works by two of the pioneers of just intonation.

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