Monday, March 9, 2020

"Following Beethoven" with Levick, Mason String Quartets

Composers Todd Mason and Hugh Levick bookend the members of the Lyris Quartet (Alyssa Park, Shalini Vijayan, Timothy Loo, Luke Maurer) at the Mason Home Concert, February 22, 2020.


Lyris Quartet, Mason Home Concerts
John Stodder Jr.

Having been to several of the Mason Home Concerts—in a stylish one-story house on a quiet, tree-lined street in Mar Vista—I’d become used to host Todd Mason offering top featured ensembles, soloists, or vocalists the opportunity to perform his own works, as well as generously giving similar slots to local composers—both well-known (e.g. Eric Whitacre and John Williams) and less so—alongside the more familiar menu of Haydn, Brahms, Schubert, Bartók, Stravinsky, etc.

This concert featured the celebrated Lyris Quartet, and it closed with the premiere of Mason’s String Quartet No. 1 (2019 version). No brief sample of his work, this is a personal statement, with a strong narrative line uniting the four movements, holding the listener’s attention for 20 minutes as it unfolds its cyclical tale, challenging the musicians to explore the immense range of tonalities and colors he assembles to tell his story.

Count Razumovsky.
Raising the bar to almost impossible heights, Mason chose to have the Lyris Quartet begin the program with one of the repertoire’s great works, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59 No. 3. This masterpiece of his middle period, the third of the five string quartets he completed between 1806-10, is the last of three dedicated to Count Andrei Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador and amateur musician who commissioned them. Ever since, they have become known simply as the Razumovsky Quartets.

In his pre-concert talk, LA Opus’ managing editor, David J. Brown, talked about the revolutionary uses to which Beethoven put the string quartet format and the unparalleled expressive range that he opened up. Brown’s talk framed the evening’s performances both historically and artistically, as Beethoven’s innovations have become a kind of baseline for the string quartet experience ever since; it’s hard for us to imagine now that, in his time, the Razumovskys were deemed by some to be difficult on the ear.

Beethoven in 1804 or 1805,
painted by Joseph
Willibrord Mähler.
No. 9 is a moody work. It opens with the quartet attacking a dissonant chord with a prominently embedded diminished 5th (sometimes called “the devil’s interval”), then another similar chord, as if awakening from a bad dream. Hushed, ethereal meanderings follow, as if wandering around a dark room sorting out reality from phantoms. Beethoven is planting a flag here. Change is in the air, not just in the quartet format but also in the larger development of classical music.

With the unsettled introduction over, the first violin calls a different tune, almost restarting the piece and with a vastly more cheerful demeanor, like children skipping down a path. It has to be said how perfectly matched are the voices of the Lyris Quartet. When the vibrant new tune passed to the other players, they mirrored the first violinist Alyssa Park’s timbre precisely—a striking effect in a small venue like the Mason concert room, and the kind of musical moment one often misses in larger venues.

David Brown delivering
pre-concert remarks on the
history of the string quartet.
David Brown had noted how baroque era string quartets relied on a continuo-like bass “from which the music for the treble instruments… would be built upwards.” Those words apply perfectly to the pizzicato cello, wonderfully played by Timothy Loo, that opens the second movement with a baseline that functions like a pulse, supporting a flowing, sometimes echoing conversation among the other strings. Luke Maurer’s viola was first among equals as this brooding, richly harmonic section unfolded.

The more playful, dance-like third movement Menuetto brings the ensemble together with confident melodies. With Alyssa Park and Shalini Vijayan (second violin) perfectly matched in style, one had the feeling of a relaxing canoe trip but, knowing Beethoven, is it to the edge of an unseen waterfall? As the third movement smacks into the fourth, the change in tempo and intensity is an unexpected adrenalin rush.

The viola starts the music, this time in fugal conversation, at a frenzied pace that challenges the others to follow. By the time the cello enters, we are amidst rapids that seem right on the threshold of what is feasible with string instruments. The first violinist is perhaps the hero of this mad rush of notes, running with (or away from) the other players almost impossibly fast. Sitting five feet from them, it was captivating to hear but also to watch. Strands of broken horsehair dangled from each bow. When it ended in a flash of musical fireworks, it took a moment for the audience to catch its breath and process what it had just heard.

After a long and very well-deserved standing ovation, the audience moved to the patio for intermission, covered from a few remaining afternoon drizzles, everyone palpably buzzing from the Lyris Quartet’s energy and Beethoven’s genius. I overheard one person say “I’d heard that quartet before, but that was the first time I experienced it in my soul.”

As the show resumed, the composer of the next piece, Hugh Levick, founder of LA’s Hear Now Music Festival, joked about the difficulty of “following Beethoven.” His piece was the second movement from M.E.L.B.A. (Morning Evening Love Bears All), a four-movement quartet he described as a “love poem to my wife, Melba, and a lament for a world in which beauty, truth, and justice are laid waste by our so-immensely powerful forces of destruction.” Levick characterized the movement, Evening, as “an ungainly waltz.”

The Lyris Quartet: l-r Alyssa Park, Shalini Vijayan, Timothy Loo, Luke Maurer.

It had a whimsically mechanical quality for the first half, bringing to mind a couple having a pleasing, sometimes passionate, exchange. The “lament” begins just before the halfway point. The tempo slows to a crawl, then slows and quietens again, creating space for a soulful cello utterance followed by a conclusion full of string effects and harmonics that play like shadows in failing light. In an intimate venue like this, quiet passages and silences can be as startling as the loud parts. Levick’s movement literally faded out in front of our eyes (and ears).

Then it was time for Mason’s work. He also joked about the “intimidating shadow of Beethoven,” pointing to a pillow on the piano with that scowling face surveying the proceedings. Mason said that Beethoven was probably his biggest influence in how he writes his own music and then held up a hefty book of all the Beethoven quartets saying, “if classical music is a religion, then this might be its Bible.” In his 250th birth anniversary year, Beethoven is still shaping the evolution of music.

In the program notes Mason explained that “my First Quartet has been in the making for many years but was only recently finished and assembled in its present form.” Indeed, some of it dates back to melodies written while at Juilliard, and the long compositional gestation creates for us a life in full, seen from dual perspectives: the young composer looking forward, and the mature looking back.

Mason House, a Mar Vista concert venue.
Mason’s quartet feels like a classic journey: from innocence, conveyed by his expert use of traditional tonality in the first movement; to disorienting and increasingly stressful harmonies in the agitated, Bartók-inspired second movement; to what he calls his quartet’s “emotional heart” in the third movement. This reaches a point of near-resignation before a sudden embrace of hidden strengths, as the protagonist discovers the presence of community and a sense of life’s purpose.

The complex fourth movement, incorporating two fugues based on melodies dating from 1981, takes us on a highly cerebral journey into more abstract realms. This is challenging music; the innocent tonality of the first movement is far behind as he explores “almost every key, venturing into the shifting sands of a very chromatic landscape.” Mason empathized with the players due to the speed, complex harmony, and range of staggered entrances he requires them to make, but the Lyris Quartet was easily in its element with this kind of technically challenging material.

Shortly before the end, the first movement’s melodic texture is echoed. As if passing through the eye of a hurricane, the protagonist of Mason’s story has a moment of calm clarity, discovering something about himself in the contrast between his youthful assuredness and his struggle to master the complications of a full life. It’s a lovely moment but also a shocking one, with the force of an epiphany. And it’s over quickly. The blur of 16th notes and intensity return, but briefly, right before the curtain comes down. The story is complete, but perhaps not over. “It’s a bit like the cycle of life,” Mason said in introductory remarks. However, this “cycle of life” piece ends with our protagonist transformed and very much alive on a new path we can only glimpse.

Mason mentioned a story of one composer of Beethoven’s time who said he was going to quit composing because “Beethoven has written all the music.” Composers today, including Levick and Mason, may have the burden of “following Beethoven,” but they prove that there is still good, meaningful music to be written.


Mason Home Concert: 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, 6.00 p.m., Saturday, February 22, 2020.
Images: Razumovsky: Wikimedia Commons; Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; The concert and venue: courtesy Todd Mason.

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