Ten quartets performed “String Quartet No.3” back to back at the 11th Annual Banff International String Quartet Competition. Stephan Bonfield of Calgary Herald waxes poetic about Vivian’s fantastic piece and dissects which of the ten quartets he felt were able to capture the true heart of the work with their interpretation.
Dark Journeys’ brought into moving reality by ten quartets at Banff competition
“I settled into my seat, filled with anticipation for hearing the ten competing quartets play Vivian Fung’s brand new String Quartet No. 3 in round three of the Banff International String Quartet Competition.
This is actually one of my most favourite rounds, taking in new music composed earlier this year, and after hearing the composer talk about its genesis, a contemplation of her own inwardly focused dark journey through a meditative landscape about the human condition and her own purpose within it, I was all the more stoked. This was bound to be a moving work, a passionate prayer of sorts describing the sudden swings of thought that exist within us, ranging from quiet and contemplative, to explosive and anguished, much like the external world we observe around us.
When the Navarra Quartet (UK/Ireland/the Netherlands) took their places as the fifth group and last to play before intermission, I was quite unprepared for how they would interpret Ms. Fung’s score. Over the years, denizens of this tri-ennial competition know that ten quartets will likely give ten vastly different offerings of the CBC/Banff Centre co-commissioned work, that it will be challenging but still idiomatically written for strings, difficult to execute, and filled with interpretively dangerous waters which these young artists must navigate. But I was not expecting the wonderful reading given by the Navarra Quartet.
In their accounting, I could also recall Ms. Fung’s eloquent anguish during her pre-concert talk over the Connecticut school shootings whose reports we horribly witnessed last year, in addition to the tremendous world conflict that she was documenting, relevant at this moment in Syria, all against a backdrop of her own personal revelations about her family’s history and its journeys of struggle. Indeed, this work could one day be nicknamed along the lines of String Quartet No. 3 – the “Dark Journeys” quartet.
Navarra Quartet transfixed me with its beautiful conveyance of the composer’s interior world immediately from the start when they played the opening cluster chord.
They understood the Middle Eastern prayer sections and the mixed narratives inspired by Schnittke’s chamber works (one of Ms. Fung’s favourite composers and one of mine too), which often contain scalding evocations of confronting mortality. These were juxtaposed frequently with slower sections that could be heard as chordal echoes of the transcendent mystical parallelism found in many of Messaien’s compositions, which required pellucid playing. Contrasting textured sections were frequently punctuated by furious bowing, glissandi, bowslap, rapid arpeggiation, and a whole host of requisite idiomatic features demanded of the performers.
The key for each ensemble was to make it cohere as one continuous story. Moreover, performers had to refrain from simply executing the gestures merely for their own expressive sake, thereby decontextualizing them from Ms. Fung’s personal spiritual narrative, and isolating them as gratuitous sounds. Some of the performers avoided this risk by bringing highly personalized interpretations to the work themselves. Those were the quartets who succeeded most yesterday, although it must be stated that there were many fine details of artistic merit to appreciate, far too many to name here, in nearly every group’s interpretation.
The Dover Quartet (USA) also handled the opening excellently, and were fluent in bringing off the piquant timbres that pop out against gentle tremoli. Their depictions of prayer passages were by far among the more expressive played yesterday, and they incisively portrayed the work’s horror elements more effectively at a visceral level.
Noga Quartet (France/Israel) opened their interpretation chillingly, and effectively. Thinly textured, dramatic, with shifts in speeds, colours and expressive gestures, this was a tremendous and impactful start. The heterophonic section of meditative chants, from its very opening to the sections of sudden contrast that immediately followed were among the top of the day. And there was a vibrancy to each voice part – every line was given a life of its own, however small or maximal the gesture.
Ms. Fung’s featured quartet ends with a section of compositional inspiration: a repeated four-note chaconne of lament, possibly for the cruelty visited on human beings. One portion of this section is quasi-improvisational and marked Full Vibrato Freely with Anguish. Here, a delicate touch is required from the performers and an especially careful tone too, so as to impart either a funereal atmosphere or ethos of spiritual repose, however one chooses to read the concluding section’s broadly metaphorical meaning.
Dover Quartet’s interpretation of the chaconne was handled weepingly well with perfectly-placed choices in intonation that imparted a greater plangent quality to the end of this work. Punctuated passages of outcries could be distinctly and dramatically heard here, as they were with the Noga and Navarra quartets, and it was also in this passage that a two-note crying motive was most conspicuous. This group’s expressive interpretation was warmly received by many members the audience who were justly moved.
The Noga Quartet’s interpretation of both the Chaconne and Vibrato with Anguish was dramatic, lyrical, moving, intense, well-paced and totally hit the mark also, scoring a big interpretive success.
But it was the Navarra Quartet that won me heart and soul, and convinced me of the mettle of Ms. Fung’s new piece. They are the ones who first coerced the work’s narrative into coherence for me, alternating great dramatic suspense one moment with intense sublime contrast the next. After the parallel-chord Mideast-inspired section, the slowly building descending passage immediately following it (and one of the most difficult to dramatically pull off in the piece) cascaded with profoundest energy, as though depicting an individual’s right to spiritual self-determination were being snatched away peremptorily.
There was a splendid accounting of harmonic availability in the quieter passages of sublime heterophonic chant – they really understood this – and I was dragged along inside the composer’s hurt. They utterly captured the poignancy of the work’s poetry.
But it was their moving accounting of the concluding chaconne that impressed me most and for which I was the least emotionally prepared, particularly in the Full Vibrato with Anguish section. It seemed as though I felt the whole ensemble weep, and I with them.”
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