Calling something “radical” can indicate a returning to roots. That’s just what Portland String Quartet’s season opener with guest cellist Jing Li on Oct. 12 at Woodford’s Congregational Church was.
In its early years, the quartet gained an international reputation for performances of little-known American composers. On Sunday, it revealed another work of quirky genius, the Quartet No. 4 (“United”) of Henry Cowell (1897-1965). Cowell is best known today for his invention of “tone clusters,” chords played on the piano with the fist or the forearm.
After hearing the work, which is nothing short of miraculous, my take on the subtitle is that the quartet attempts to embody the motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum.” Or, perhaps, democracy in music.
What in lesser hands might have been a pastiche of ethnic fragments becomes a unification of world musics that fits together like a perfectly made piece of cabinetry. Cowell does not do imitations, but goes to the roots of what make music sound the way it does. He can then express his own ideas in that style, although “style” is too weak a word for what he accomplishes.
He can take a limit of three notes, like the Beatles’ three basic chords, and build a sonata out of it. The quartet begins with something that sounds like “Turkey in the Straw,” on the streets of Marrakesh. This largely treble sound is then contrasted with a theme that emphasizes the bass, with a Russian tinge, the cello sounding exactly like a distant drum.
The following andante has a Debussy-like shimmer and seems to explore the moods of water.
The allegretto is all African, based on the wood-block xylophone combinations of rhythm and pitch popular in countries such as Mali.
Cowell saves the best for last, in a triumphant tempo di marcia that begins with a long, irregular series of rests – silences between chords like flashes of distant lightning – which make the listener count to provide his or her own march. The chords eventually coalesce into a gorgeous melody that is sweet rather than military.
The quartet performed it with the delight of a child who has just found a diamond ring on the beach.
The program concluded with a fine performance of the Beethoven Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1, which gave Li’s cello an opportunity to shine, especially in the funereal adagio molto e mesto.
I love this piece, especially the allegretto, with its six-note call and response, which sounds positively Mexican. Its final allegro based on a Russian theme can get a bit wearing, however. After the fifth false cadence, what was once a clever artifice has one reaching for Freudian explanations. Sacrilege, but there it is. The quartet gave its best effort, with a sound that was at times symphonic.
With the retirement of cellist Paul Ross, the quartet’s next concert, on Dec. 7, will feature guest cellist Andrew Mark.
WHAT: Portland String Quartet
WHERE: Woodfords Congregational CHurch
WHEN: Oct. 12