Avalon Quartet serves up bracing night of American music

Thu Apr 28, 2011 at 7:08 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Anyone attending an Avalon String Quartet concert expects good things. Founded in 1995 and based at Northern Illinois University, Avalon is one of the Chicago area’s leading chamber ensembles, performing thoughtfully chosen repertoire with verve and precision. 

But the group’s concert of American music Wednesday night in Merit School of Music’s Gottlieb Hall offered something extra. A subtle programming thread ran through three of the four works, offering the pleasure of hearing gifted composers almost literally echoing the physical world around them.  

Augusta Read Thomas’ Fugitive Star from 2000 was inspired by the idea of a star pulling away from its galaxy’s centrifugal force. In Aqua, which is not yet finished, New York-based composer Harold Meltzer responds to the undulating surface of architect Jeanne Gang’s distinctive Chicago skyscraper of the same name. And in Steve Reich’s well-known piece for string quartet and tape, Different Trains (1988), the melodies imitated speech patterns of Holocaust survivors and a Pullman porter recalling train travel during World War II. The short, fragmented phrases talked of America luxury trains as well as Europe’s concentration camp-bound cattle cars. 

Composers have evoked the real world for eons, of course. But the tight focus on a single, arresting idea—a hurtling star, a single building, snippets of conversation—made Tuesday’s performances feel especially immediate and urgent.  

The zesty first movement of Aqua was a kind of music trailer, a sample that whetted our appetite for hearing more once Meltzer completes the work. The music had a sense of constant rhythmic pulse, but at any given moment violinists Blaise Magniere and Marie Wang, violist Anthony Devroye and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee swirled and danced away in syncopated riffs. Their melodies sounded spicy and unpredictable but always driven by an undercurrent of seamless flow and forward momentum. Like the surface of Gang’s apartment building, Meltzer’s Aqua was full of energy with few sharp edges.  

Aqua is a commission from the Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University. Once it is finished, a consortium of the Avalon quartet, the Pacifica Quartet and Lydian String Quartet will give the piece its world premiere in various cities.  

Avalon’s characteristically rich, full-bodied sound was ideal for Thomas’s luminous Fugitive Star. Devroye’s plaintive viola wandered in the opening bars, a lost soul slowing trying to find its way. In climactic moments, the quartet clashed with weighty yet singing fury. 

Different Trains is one of the 20th century’s finest chamber music pieces, and the Avalon fully mined its potent repetitions. Against the taped, muted rustle of speeding trains and warning whistles, Lee’s cello duplicated the sound and shape of the Pullman porter’s comments. Call and response were so tightly woven that music became speech and speech became music.  

The concert closed with Amy Beach’s lushly romantic Piano Quartet in F-sharp minor, Op. 67. Guest pianist William Koehler plunged into the wind-swept music. He urged the responsive strings players on with flurries of massive yet fleet chords and yearning, richly colored melodic lines.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Avalon Quartet serves up bracing night of American music”

  1. Posted Apr 29, 2011 at 4:49 pm by Patricia Johnson

    It was my first Avalon Concert and it was absolutely wonderful! I was so impressed with the skilled musicians in combination with the physical world. It was a very moving concert, one I will long remember!!

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