The Quest: I

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had less drive to write recently. I’ve been thinking about that. Part of the reasons are obvious: I wrote frequently during the early days of the pandemic, including a complete year of doing the Daily Storic writing prompts, because–at least early on–it helped keep me from spiraling into inertia. But if you go back further than that, there was a time that I seemingly had aspirations to writing more, to perhaps pick up the threads of my research passions of previous years, to develop some sort of outward-facing blog. I’m not doing that so much now, and I really have to find the time to pursue it. And it dawned on me what has, at least in the past six months, changed: My job. I don’t feel like I need as much an outlet right now for doing things that make a difference in the world. Between the job (including a renewed sense of purpose with Toastmasters), moving into doing more RPGs, and even helping out with a cat rescue, I really feel I am now feeding the need for learning, growth, and knowledge sharing. And that’s a good thing.

But what do you do when you spend your time chasing unicorns and you find most of them? You realize that there is a certain exhilaration in the hunt. Is this why I always need to keep learning? I’m never satisfied with the things in the rear view mirror–I need to have that next rare beast in my viewfinder.

But for now, the unicorn has been sighted–along with a gryphon.

I: 1-3

I kept checking the days before to make sure nothing had changed, that I hadn’t just dreamed up a Shostakovich quartet cycle in Buffalo.

Of less, but not zero concern were some lingering cold symptoms, as well as ongoing adjustment issues between Zoya and Furiosa that had me sleeping with the former on my office couch all of last week. But on April 12 I found myself crossing the border (only a brief wait at Lewiston) and finding myself with more time than expected. So I visited JoAnn’s (buying some black velour fabric with shiny rainbow cats on it) and Target before making my way to the hall. It was easy to find and was maybe half full, but these were the illuminati, in a sense.

The Alexander String Quartet was founded in the 1980s and is based in San Francisco. It has gone through a number of personnel changes–including the retirement of its second violinist just a few months ago. While they work through finding a replacement, they recruited a violinist, Lyly Li, just for these concerts. The rest of the musicians are first violinist Zakarias Gravfilo, violist David Samuel, and cellist Sandy Wilson (who is the remaining founding member of the ensemble.)

Quite a few quartets choose to seat the violist on the right outside spot with the cellist to their right, but the Alexander reverses the positions, and as a result violist Samuel did not find himself with his instrument essentially pointed to the rear. Almost from the beginning of the First Quartet, the wisdom of this approach was obvious. Samuel’s instrument is unusually large and slightly viol-shaped, and the rich, warm, dark tone was immediately apparent.

Quartet no. 1 (op. 49) is by all accounts the least of Shostakovich’s. It was composed in 1938 almost by accident, with Shostakovich himself more or less dismissing it as a trifle. However, it’s still a really lovely trifle, and was a beautiful kickoff to the cycle.

Quartet no. 2 (op. 68) had never made much of an impression on me–until this concert, where I realized that it was very definitely of the sound world of Trio no. 2 (which was written the same year), but especially Symphony no. 8. Right from the beginning movement, which has a little of the feel of klezmer, there is a kind of emphatic urgency to the work, combined with what I would term thick, somewhat murky and muted harmonies, especially in the third movement. It feels dappled with darkness, frenzied, with nervous runs of chromaticism and repeated rapid notes. It’s wonderfully, terribly twitchy movement. And then the fourth movement has, after some introductory chords, this beautiful viola melody–made all the more wonderful on Samuel’s warm, rich, dark instrument, which then travels to the violin. A series of variations ensue, and then the chords come back, ending an ostensibly major quartet in a minor key and utterly vibrating with intensity as played by the Alexander Quartet.

And then there was Quartet no. 3 ( op. 73), which has a special place for me always as the first of Shostakovich’s quartets to be heard live. It has such an utterly charming, bouncy opening that completely belies all the places it’s going to go. The intensity starts to crank up in the second movement, along with the dissonance, but there’s this lovely passage over little mincing steps that was just amazing. Oh, and then, the third movement and everything just ignited breathtakingly – the tension just dialing further and further up, all four players (but particularly Gravfilo) conveying the intensity with their body language and perfectly synched bowstrokes. And then into a kind of wandering desolation in the fourth movement, before returning to a kind of uneasy sweetness in the final movement, before moving into what can only be described as jauntiness, before plunging yet again into Tension and Drama. And then there’s the beautiful, haunting, morendo ending, with its high harmonic and soft, plucked chords.

II: 4-6
This time I had enough extra time to stop at Kohl’s on the way in. Purchased a plain red short-sleeved t-shirt, a Hellfire Club shirt and a silver necklace in the form of a treble clef. I was starting to get an idea of what kind of commemorative item I wanted for this cycle, and figured it’d get used one way or another.

Quartet no 4 (op.83) and no. 5 (op, 92) were two I was particularly eager to hear live, and as it turned out, I liked 4 better than the 5th when performed live. The 4th has some wonderful klezmer-like moments, particularly in the third movement. But what really came across with this movement was the quiet–the entire movement, which sounds emphatic through headphones, is played entirely with the mutes on. That often doesn’t come across in recordings. That makes the final movement, where they remove the mutes, really stand out. I also noticed, in both 4 and 5, but particularly in 4, how thick and close the harmonies are. But in 5 Shostakovich is also adding in these open, high octaves with harmonics. Those really stand out in the middle movement (which from now on I am just going to call “quartet No. 15: the preview.” It, too, is played completely muted. It is also worth mentioning that 4 and 5 were both desk drawer compositions—I think they pair nicely (almost like symphonies 4 and 5, although I don’t think there’s any overlap in material). I think from here on out I am, like I often do with the 4th and 5th symphonies, consider the 4th and 5th quartets as endpoints of a creative process.

Quartet 6 (op.101) was/is unexpectedly light and bouncy, and ends in a kind of fluffy cloud of calm. It just seems like an odd detour in the direction Shostakovich was headed with the quartets, although he apparently was a happy newlywed at the time (which wouldn’t last) The opening sounds positively Haydenesque. It’s nice, but not particularly memorable after hearing the 4/5 combo.

III: 7-9
Here I stopped at another Joann’s, acquiring jewellery-making supplies, before staking out a Wegman’s to stake out (successfully) Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chocolate Chunk ice cream. (I would stop by on the way back).

This batch, which are the “biographical” quartets (#7, dedicated to Shostakovich’s first wife, Nina; #8 being #8 (allegedly autobiographical, and full of the DSCH motif), and #9 dedicated to his third wife, Irina), I thought would contain the least surprises, since I’d heard both 8 and 9 live before, and 7 is the shortest of all the quartets. However, I was prepared for intensity, particularly with #8.

But where I got it the most was completely unexpected: in no. 7 (op. 108). While doing a little pre-concert research on a discarded scheme to build a piece of commemorative jewellery based on the months the quartets were composed in, I ran across the fact that Shostakovich completely broke the seeming cadence of the keys for his quartets with this one in F sharp minor. It was his first quartet in a minor key, and it was a key “associated with pain and suffering.” It’s also not a quartet I’d paid a lot of attention to–although I was starting to come around before this concert. After this performance, I came out a fan. The short, skittering first movement was soothed by the odd, hypnotic, almost stoned feel of the second. It reminded me of the kind of sleep one gets after a dose of cough syrup–not really restful, and punctuated by odd, buzzy visions–and was that a bit of the main theme of the first movement of Symphony 5? It wasn’t exact, but the recollection was there. I could also acutely feel the sense of loss, and my eyes moistened. And then all of a sudden, a ferocious awakening, a kind of fugal figure that presages what we’re going to hear in the second movement of Quartet no 8, moving into chugging, dissonant chords, culminating in a chromatic restatement of the opening notes of the entire piece. This all within the first two and a half minutes of the movement. My jaw just dropped at the shock. (And this is a quartet I’ve listened to many, many times). And then, just like that, the energy is spent, and, after returning to the feel of the beginning of the quartet, peace eventually descends into a morendo ending.

After the unexpected intensity of no. 7, no. 8 (op. 110) was a bit of an anticlimax, although not without its own intensity. The Alexander Quartet took a bit of an understated approach to the work, allowing the music itself to speak rather than all of the mythology that’s built up around the work. As a result, the DSCH motifs did not stick out in a way that said “Oh, look! It’s those notes again!”. And no. 9 (op. 117) did not disappoint. The highlight here was the buildup to the huge finale; the turning up of the tension and the final release. It reminds me a little bit of the finale of the 10th symphony.

With 3/5 concerts done, we are on pause until this coming weekend, where we head into the deep woods where the mythical beasts of the late quartets dwell. We will travel through the 10th, with its angry furioso movement, to the fragmented 11th, the lopsided (and beloved by musicians) 12th, the percussive and quirky 13th, the unexpectedly playful 14th, and then the 15th, with its six adagio movements and elegiac feel. And I am gaining much from these intimate performances: I am noticing; how much of the overtone buzz and warmth of the cello, in particular, is lost in recordings. I can clearly hear the individual notes in chords stacking to make the whole. Saturday, I will return, and will stay the night, with stops for Frank Lloyd Wright, an architecture tour, and some time with a friend. If all goes well, the unicorn will rest its head in my lap.

I said there was a gryphon, too. This past weekend, Dave and I attended two days of Gryphcon, getting in three sessions of Pathfinder, seeing a few other friends, and even a stop at a bookstore, where I picked up a copy of Ducks, the recent winner of Canada Reads. It was a great conclusion to a busy five days, and we’ll be back next year for sure–especially since Dave won a free pass in the raffle.

And today? I sewed the rainbow cat velour into a new tunic top. It’s currently going through the laundry, in hopes it will lose a bit of its static.

One comment

  1. I am both amazed and puzzled at the way you hear music. Your descriptions are beyond anything that I ever experience when listening to my favorite composers. I wonder how many of us have these hidden (?), extra (?) senses that leave me/us rather blind.


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