Tag Archives: Henry Cowell

Review: KSO Principal Quartet and Woodwind Quintet – Chance and Necessity

Jacques Monod, the Nobel Prize-winning French biologist (not to be confused with Jacques-Louis Monod, the French-born American composer), died in 1976 rightly known for his life-altering 1970 book Chance and Necessity. He was renowned through that essay for his belief that existence is due to chance occurrence and that eventual recognition of that fact will bring about a revolution in how we perceive the universe. “Chance alone is at the source of all novelty, all creation in the biosphere,” he wrote. “Pure chance, only chance, absolute but blind liberty is at the root of the prodigious edifice that is evolution. . . .”

Oddly though, it did not surprise me to learn that Dr. Monod was a life long music lover and amateur cellist. The seemingly infinite permutations of musical tones and textures arranged linearly and specifically certainly do not negate chance as an instigator of existence. Nor does chance alter our fundamental attraction to music. Music, after all, is linear only because we are linear time-defined beings and our perceptions are traditionally sequential.

The idea of chance, an uncomfortable one for theists and classicists, infiltrated the traditionally linear world of music performance at several points in the first half of the 20th Century. One of the experimenters was the American Henry Cowell whose “Mosaic Quartet” (Quartet No. 3 for Strings) was offered by the KSO Principal Quartet on last Sunday’s Chamber Classic Series concert.

Apparently, Cowell indicated that there was no pre-ordained order to the five movements of the quartet—so, to that end, Lucas Richman, introducing the afternoon’s works, had five audience members choose the order of performance by drawing slips of paper from a cup. In actuality, the order of movements really is meaningless as Cowell’s quartet seems to revolve around competing tonal textures rather than structure. It would be left for other works and later composers to explore the chance juxtaposition of musical notes themselves.

Although chance plays a role in all musical performance to some extent, the remainder of the works on the program were traditionally defined. Following the Cowell was Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, a work for woodwind quintet that was performed by the principal woodwind players of the KSO. Unfortunately, we get to hear these five excellent players perform as an ensemble all too rarely. [The KSO woodwind principals are Nadine Hur, flute; Phylis Secrist, oboe; Gary Sperl, clarinet; Ellen Connors, bassoon; and Calvin Smith; horn]

Barber’s Summer Music, from 1956, is uncannily evocative, in an expressionistic way, of the American experience, or at least, as Americans perceive it. The wistful oboe melody is quite lyrical, even cautiously romantic, but in a way that reflects a particularly American romanticism. However, this is an urban Romanticism, not a European pastoral one. Although this is his only work for winds, Barber seemed to instinctively realize how specific tonal images arise when the textures of two of the five instruments combine with a third solo instrument.

Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, and strings is so atmospherically impressionistic, it is impossible not to admire. It is also a wonderful vehicle for the harp—on this occasion by harpist Cindy Hicks. The clarinetist was Gary Sperl and the flutist was Nadine Hur.

Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59, No. 1, the first of the three “Rasumovsky” quartets, is very much like an old friend for me, and I suspect that it is as well for the KSO Principal Quartet members. [Miroslav Hristov and Edward Pulgar, violins; Kathryn Gawne, viola; and Andy Bryenton, cello] This is an ensemble that has benefited enormously from the regular playing they do as part of the KSO’s outreach programs. And likewise, their audience has benefited as well.

Unfortunately, this performance was marred a bit by some bobbles and tiny intonation issues in the violins. Moments that should have flowed and sparkled with life and energy, seemed a bit matter-of-fact. Having said that, I’d love to hear a repeat performance—that’s the way it is with old friends.


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