Following up on the master class they gave this past Tuesday, the Telegraph Quartet concluded the first of three visits to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) last night in the SFCM Concert Hall. The two violinists in this ensemble, Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, alternated in taking the first violin chair. They were joined by violist Pei-Ling Lin and cellist Jeremiah Shaw.
The centerpiece of the program was Leon Kirchner’s first string quartet, composed at the age of 30 in 1949. When Kirchner’s birthday was celebrated in 2013 with the release of Revelations, which featured compositions never before published or recorded, I made it a point to note how little of Kirchner’s portfolio is available on recordings. My guess is that the 1949 quartet was unfamiliar to much (most?) of the audience, which may say less about Kirchner than about how the institutionalization of music (not just popular music) as a business tended to narrow listening opportunities.
Kirchner was one of Arnold Schoenberg’s students when Schoenberg was teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles. That sets him apart from the earlier generation of American composers who went to France to learn how to compose American music from Nadia Boulanger at the French Music School for Americans in Fontainebleau. While Kirchner became well versed on Schoenberg’s techniques, which included his “method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another,” he also understood, as did Schoenberg, that one composes music, rather than principles.
Kirchner clearly appreciated Schoenberg’s efforts to “emancipate” dissonance in the acts of making music. However, the quartet suggests that Kirchner saw this emancipation as an intellectual challenge: How can one establish the functional role of a cadence in the absence of the tonic-dominant relationship established by tonality? In listening to this quartet, one can easily believe that Kirchner was trying to answer this question through the judicious use of rhythm. Indeed, his third movement (labeled “Divertimento – Trio”) is readily recognizable as a nod to the ternary forms of minuet and trio in classical sonata form. While the other three movements are not as explicitly retrospective, they all give the impression that Kirchner was exploring the role rhythm could play in how we perceive the passage of time, particularly how that passage can be segmented.
With Maile in the first violin chair for this performance, Telegraph gave a clear account of this unfamiliar music. Clarity could be found not only in their attentiveness to the score but also in their rhetorical shaping of phrases in that score. The result was that a composition whose surface structure could easily be taken as highly abstract also turned out to be just as highly expressive. According to the program notes by Colin Whitfield, Kirchner cited Béla Bartók as a “major influence;” and, after this “first impressions” listening, I can only hope that Kirchner’s quartet secures as significant a position in the repertoire as has already been established by the six Bartók quartets.
I must confess, however, that my thoughts about rhythm may have been shaped by the music that preceded Kirchner’s quartet, Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/79 quartet in D major, the fifth of six quartets commissioned by the Hungarian Count Joseph Erdödy and published as Haydn’s Opus 76. These quartets were composed in 1796 and 1797. By this time Haydn would have been aware of the rising fortunes of his pupil Ludwig van Beethoven (including the three Opus 2 piano sonatas that Beethoven dedicated to Haydn); so there may be some justification in taking Opus 76 as the old dog demonstrating that he was still capable of new tricks.
In the D major quartet many of those tricks have to do with rhythm. Indeed, the final movement demonstrates that, even with all the conventions of tonality, one can still use rhythm to create false impressions of cadence. By the time one reaches this movement, one is ready for anything from Haydn, particularly since he seems to have deliberately designed his preceding minuet movement to be entirely undanceable. The fact is that each movement takes its own approach to a rhetoric of wit, so the listener who makes it to the final movement is ready for anything.
Chin took the lead chair for this quartet. However, it was clear that all four members of the ensemble were in on Haydn’s jokes and delighted to share them all with the audience. This was a brisk account of the score, always true to the letter while making sure that the spirit was never short-changed.
The program concluded with the first of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 44 string quartets, composed in the key of D major. This quartet is all exuberant energy, even in the Andante espressivo ma con moto (third) movement. While Telegraph, again with Chin in the lead, was not shy about unleashing that energy, it was hard to avoid thinking of Mendelssohn as being a bit too well-mannered, particularly after following what turned out to be a particularly effective coupling of Kirchner to Haydn. Thus, while the performance expressed all of the refreshing qualities of the music, it also felt a bit like an anticlimax.