Multimedia misfire at Mandel Hall with Rushdie, American Quartet

Sat Feb 25, 2017 at 12:31 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The American String Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.
The American String Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall. Photo: Peter Schaaf

The University of Chicago Presents hosted the American String Quartet with author Salman Rushdie Friday night at Mandel Hall as part of its “ Music Across Genres” series. While the musicians delivered some energetic ensemble playing, the evening as a whole was overlong and most of its major elements were mystifyingly ill conceived.

The first half was devoted to the Midwest premiere of Paul Cantelon’s Suite for The Enchantress of Florence, which Rushdie and the American premiered at the Morgan Library in New York on Wednesday. Cantelon’s laconic description of the work in the program note stated that it “consists of six movements, interspersed with six passages from the book, read by the author, Salman Rushie,” which actually sums up the piece’s significant shortcomings.

After a brief introduction from the quartet, six substantial excerpts read from the novel alternate with musical movements ostensibly inspired by them. “Interspersed” is an apt way of describing the relationship between the text and music, as there is virtually no meaningful synthesis between the two—author and ensemble simply take turns making their disjointed contributions. 

Salman Rushdie. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
Salman Rushdie. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

It was a treat to hear Rushdie read from his ninth novel. His prose is sensuous and evocative, and his orotund delivery brings this writing to life, his timbre and modulation creating a sort of “musical” experience. This is actually a problem for the work as a whole though. If Rushdie is not the reader, the total work’s impact vanishes. Can anyone else ever “perform” this piece?

Cantelon, best known as a film composer, writes in a comely neo-Romantic idiom, which at least in this protracted opus, is numbingly uniform. The work’s melodies are largely stepwise elaborations of single tones that are almost invariably supported by straightforward moving accompaniments of arpeggiated chords.

At best they could serviceably accompany the text that inspired them, but there was no tangible relationship between Rushdie’s words and Cantelon’s music. Neither enhanced the other, and the musical movements themselves were effectively interchangeable. The whole affair—music plus reading—clocked in at 75 minutes (twice the duration indicated in the program), which turned what began as an offbeat collaboration into something of an ordeal.

Paul Cantelon
Paul Cantelon

Sadly, such poorly thought out presentation was not confined to the first half. The second half was devoted to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-Flat Major, Op. 130, with the original Große Fuge finale. For some reason Cantelon himself introduced the work with a reading of a substantial portion of the Heiligenstadt Testament. That document dates from 1802, the B-flat Quartet from 1825, and it was completely unclear what point was being made by including the reading.

Worse and more distracting, a substantial part of Beethoven’s famous 1812 letter to the “Immortal Beloved” was read by Cantelon in the middle of the quartet performance before the work’s Cavatina—suggesting that Beethoven’s frustrated affections had something to do with this ardent but decidedly aprogrammatic music written over a decade later. All one could glean for sure was that Beethoven wrote emotional words as well as emotional music, but the nature of the relationship between the two was left unexplored.

Fortunately, the American Quartet’s performance of Op. 130 had more merits. The first movement was delivered vigorously and its potentially jerky starts and stops felt organic. The fleet Presto was the highlight of the evening, the American giving its unhinged breathlessness a demonic quality. The quartet highlighted the quirky harmonic twists of the Andante to great effect and the Alla danza tedesca had an expansive Ländler quality. The Cavatina glowed inwardly and the Große Fuge went with a fire that underscored its baffling modernity.

The performance could have benefited, however, from greater communication among the four players, who more often than not seemed buried in their challenging individual roles. This made for a performance that was no more nor less than the sum of its parts, and great quartets should aspire to more.

University of Chicago Present hosts Stile Antico in a program titled “In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile” 7:30 p.m. March 3 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Multimedia misfire at Mandel Hall with Rushdie, American Quartet”

  1. Posted Feb 25, 2017 at 1:31 pm by David

    That was one bizarre night. The Große Fuge was the quartet’s way to say “we are sorry.”

  2. Posted Feb 26, 2017 at 9:05 am by Robert

    Agree with every word of this review; I would add one more: tedious. It was also a jarring contrast for Cantelon’s first composition for string quartet to share the program with the apotheosis of the musical form. It served to highlight Cantelon’s shortcomings.

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