Finally. A new music festival in NYC without the shi shi Manhattan vibe or hipster Brooklyn pretention. And better yet, I only have to take the 7 train a few stops to get to it. Multicultural Sonic Evolution (MuSE) opened its Sounds of Arts Festival with a down-to-earth string quartet performance at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, New York on November 28, 2012. The program juxtaposed two enticing brand new works with a couple canonic classics. They truly hit the jackpot with the location: The Secret Theatre’s acoustics were perfect for the intimate sounds of the string quartet and brought out the full palette of timbres with resonance and transparency.
The MuSE String Quartet, which has played together for less than a year and only for occasional concerts, was impressive in its ability to pull together as well as allow individual members to shine at the right moments. This was especially evident on Cristina Spinei’s Bootleg Sugar Lips, premiered that night. Spinei’s piece was solidly minimalist in its aesthetic with a keen sense of large-scale form. Perhaps my favorite moment was when the more constant pulse stopped and the quartet seemed to take a step back, breathe, and restart another gradual build-up of sound one player at a time. I was especially drawn to the bursting accents in the cello over more static repetition in the rest of the quartet. Spinei was effective in creating enticing patterns and then drawing attention to a particular part, thereby creating a sense of large-scale melody and individual voices within a full texture. As someone who does not have a strong affinity for minimalism, Bootleg Sugar Lips drew me in and left me at the edge of my seat with its not-overstated yet spectacular ending (which I wouldn’t feel right giving away).
Yui Kitamura’s Camellia – Longing For You derived much of its material from a short melodic idea at first passed around the quartet and then developed into a more flowing line in the first violin. The surrounding harmonies provided tremendous color and made this piece live up to its name (camellias are gorgeous colorful flowers). After enjoying the steady flow of the ensemble for several minutes, the sudden all-pizzicato presentation of the main melodic idea was like looking at the same great painting from a whole different angle and noticing things you hadn’t seen before. Camellia – Longing For You was a truly beautiful piece (and come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever used that word to summarize a piece in a new music concert review before). Both Kitamura and Spinei displayed traits that are often lacking from young composers: a solid and satisfying sense of form, pulling a lot out of only a little material, and a great ear for what sounds they want to get out of the string quartet.
The program was balanced out with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. I in F-major and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C-minor, two of my favorites, and not easy pieces to pull off. The latter was brought to life especially with the brooding tone and sorrow-filled phrases by violist Jules Lai and by the energy and pull-no-punches power of violinist Chie Yoshinaka. By the end of the high-octane second movement I could see plenty of loose strands coming off the bows, which I suppose is the best way to judge a performance of this piece. As a reminder that we were in Queens, the haunting end was accompanied by the faint sound of the 7 train passing overhead as if it had been planned that way.
MuSE Quartet interpreted the Beethoven with an emphasis on flowing lyricism, taking its time through phrases and lingering in the right places. I was especially taken with violinist Ashley Windle’s leaning into and swelling of individual notes and melodic gestures. Cellist Jeanette Stenson dug in with tremendous resonance in a way that filled the room with an earthy tone. While I could have done with more rhythmic punctuation, especially on that insistent motive in the second movement, I appreciated hearing a more flowing rendition of this piece. The MuSE Quartet excelled at allowing each member to shape their melodic moments to their individual liking, highlighting the conversational element while coming together tightly when needed.
The rest of MuSE’s Sounds of Arts Festival ventures quite far afield from the string quartet format, with Cadillac Moon Ensemble performing new music in a multi-media setting with theatre, dance and film; a theatrical tour of New York’s five-boroughs; the results of a young composer’s competition; and closing with a dance performance Sunday night. It’s great to see a new organization taking the risk and responsibility of bringing artistic performance where it doesn’t have a ready-made audience. I hope this can be part of getting new music outside of only the trendy neighborhoods and bringing it down to earth.
David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC and a doctoral candidate in musicology at CUNY Graduate Center.