Thursday, March 14, 2019

String quartets across five centuries at RHUMC

The Hausmann Quartet: l-r Bram Goldstein, Alex Greenbaum, Angela Choong, Isaac Allen.


The Hausmann Quartet, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

I don’t know whether this was the first appearance at RHUMC’s monthly Sunday afternoon recital series by the San Diego-based Hausmann Quartet, but it was certainly my first encounter with them, and their cool, incisive sound proved a refreshing contrast to the richer, saturated tones more common among the LA/South Bay ensembles I’ve heard. Their program, too, was markedly different, beginning deep in the remote musical past of Elizabethan England, then vaulting five centuries to a contemporary American work, and finally settling in the height of Classicism for the “main course”, with nary a note of Romanticism anywhere. 

A possible likeness of John Taverner
in an ornamental capital E from
a contemporary manuscript partbook.
As a musical form, the In Nomine developed as a short, self-contained, four-part instrumental piece from the “in nomine Domini” setting within the Benedictus of a mass by John Taverner (c.1490-1545); dozens of composers wrote In Nomines over the next 150 years or so. In the RHUMC’s generous acoustic, the Hausmann Quartet’s austere, vibrato-free playing in two—one by Taverner himself and the other by his near-contemporary, Christopher Tye (c.1505-c.1573, and apparently the most prolific composer of In Nomines, with 24 to his credit)—had a timeless beauty and gravity that made any concern about inappropriate “modern” instruments for this ancient music quite irrelevant.

Before playing Source Code, by Jessie Montgomery (b.1981), the Hausmann Quartet’s ‘cellist Alex Greenbaum read some explanatory notes by the composer:

“The first sketches […] began as transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the peak of the Civil Rights era [...] I experimented by re-interpreting gestures, sentences, and musical syntax […] into musical sentences and tone paintings. Ultimately, this exercise of listening, re-imagining, and transcribing led me back to the black spiritual as a common musical source across all three genres […] This one movement work is a kind of dirge, which centers on a melody based on syntax derived from black spirituals. The melody is continuous and cycles through like a gene strand with which all other textures play.” 
Jessie Montgomery.

The work opens with strong, held unisons for all four players, out of which a long-breathed melody on the first violin slowly grows; the unisons become closely-packed chords, glissandi spawn harmonic shifts, and the pace of activity increases. For me, “dirge”, with its memorial overtones, wasn’t quite the right word; Source Code seemed more of a meditation, passingly beautiful but inconclusive as it devolved back into another unison, now very quiet, after nine minutes or so. Had the explanation not been given, I would have entirely missed any aural hints of the source material, but that’s down to my untutored ears. 

Beginning in 2016, The Hausmann Quartet and the Maritime Museum of San Diego have partnered to present “Haydn Voyages: Music at the Maritime”, a quarterly concert series aboard the Berkeley, an 1898 steam ferryboat that operated for 60 years on San Francisco Bay, that is intended eventually to encompass all 68 of Haydn’s string quartets. Last Sunday, the RHUMC audience was privileged to hear them in the String Quartet No. 62 in C major, Op. 76 No. 3, Hob. III:77, commonly dubbed the “Emperor” due to its slow movement, a set of four lengthy and resourceful variations on the melody that Haydn himself composed, shortly before the string quartet, as a personal anthem for Emperor Francis II (and which in later years was adopted as the German national anthem).

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791).
The near-absence of vibrato gave this great tune, of which Haydn is said to have been particularly proud, a stately and unadorned beauty, and the Hausmann Quartet's relative uniformity of dynamic in the variations (Haydn is sparing of expression marks in his score) had the effect of binding them tighter together into a whole, rather then underlining differences between them.

There was, however, no lack of infectious bounce in the first movement’s dotted rhythms, nor indeed in the countless opportunities for lively interplay between the four parts that Haydn’s mature mastery of the quartet medium provides.

The basic tempo for the third movement Menuetto was quite spacious, as indeed the Presto finale also seemed to be, though this marking is deceptive: the opening subject in quarter notes has to be at a speed that allows the cascade of triplets that Haydn subsequently hurls all over the score to be clearly articulated. No problems here for the Hausmanns. With all repeats intact except the rarely-observed second half of the first movement, the whole performance was a joy; enough so, indeed, to have one eyeing Groupons for San Diego…

Carlos Paredes by Bottelho (2007).
Romanticism, at least in the form of an eloquently nostalgic Portuguese folk idiom, actually did make an appearance—in the encore, an arrangement for string quartet by Osvaldo Golijov of the guitar piece Canção verdes anos by Carlos Paredes (1925-2004). This sounded like it was constantly about to turn into Gershwin’s "Summertime", and none the worse for that!


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, March 10 2019, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Hausmann Quartet: Sam Zauscher, courtesy artists’ website; Taverner: Wikimedia Commons; Jessie Montgomery: Jiyang Chen, courtesy Community MusicWorks; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Paredes: the artist, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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