Delgani Quartet review: Intense cohesion

Eugene string quartet's multimedia American Portraits concert shows strong connections -- and occasional disconnects between style and content

by DANIEL HEILA

An ensemble of young, talented musicians who are connected with their time and respectful of their musical heritage, the Delgani Quartet is bravely staring down the four-year residency curse that plagues the Eugene local concert music community. At the final concert of their inaugural season, American Portrait, the quartet unquestionably established themselves as A-league talent.

Delgani String Quartet. Photo: Mike Bragg.

Delgani String Quartet. Photo: Mike Bragg.

Delgani is a tightly woven whole that brings the entirety of their various musical talents and personalities to bear on the music they bring to life. At times in the May 20 concert at Springfield’s Sprout Center, the players seemed to forget the audience and slip into a kind of synchronistic joy. At other times, this intense cohesion kept the ensemble from accessing higher musicality. Regardless, the astutely curated program of American music allowed the ensemble to showcase their virtuosity and to demonstrate their affinity with our country’s concert music.

Lou Harrison’s String Quartet Set ranged from Sephardic sensuality to medieval blues to austere quasi-organum, and abandon. The intimate whispering murmurs of the Plaint movement provided an exquisite taste of the whole ensemble. The Portland-born composer’s love of the viola was obvious in Kimberlee Uwate’s sensitive performance. In fact Uwate played a key diplomatic role throughout the concert, moving between supporting roles and gorgeous solo and transition work.

Lou Harrison at his strawbale house in California. Photo: Eva Soltes

Lou Harrison at his strawbale house in California.
Photo: Eva Soltes

Harrison named the quartet’s “Estampie” movement after an ancient Western music and dance form described by music scholars as having involved “vigorous hopping,” and he enjoyed the word’s phonetic similarity to “stampede.” But Kelly Quesada’s interpretation of the movement’s percussive cello effects, though played surely, failed to translate the energizing, integral role that percussive movement plays in historical, structured dance.

Throughout the piece, Delgani transitioned with finesse between complex multivoice textures (first and third movements “Variations” and “Rondeaux”) and traditional tune and accompaniment sections (“Plaint” and “Estampie”). Harrison’s well-known humanism permeates String Quartet Set and Delgani embraced the work’s significant ensemble discourse with ease. They are a cohesive group.

Abandoning Comfort Zones

Anyone who has been awash in the sound of a gospel choir knows its collective abandon. William Grant Still, considered the dean of African-American classical composers, was no stranger to the tradition and its touch is evident in “Jovial One,” the final movement of his Lyric Quartet. Although the ensemble’s cohesive interpretation of these elements was sound, I was left with a longing for some of that abandon. Often, the American concert music Still and others wrote in the 1930s–1950s suffers from a nostalgic interpretation and sentimentality that strips it of the grit and hardship that has defined the American experience and produced much of the traditional and ethnic material that composers have mined.

Delgani Quartet. Photo: Bridie Harrington.

Delgani Quartet. Photo: Bridie Harrington.

Jennifer Higdon’s Sky Quartet (1997, 2000) conjured a vast range of cloud formations within its tribute to our planet’s blue ceiling.“Sky Rising” opened the quartet with a wonderful trim hocket section—a medieval back-and-forth, hiccupy approach to melody—that condensed into the main themes played brilliantly by violinists Wyatt True and Jannie Wei, who moved together as one through highly textured counterpoint before the movement hocketed to an end.

Quesada excelled in the expansive cello part of the third movement, “Blue Sky,” repeatedly leading the ensemble into frantic lyricism only to pull it back down to her ground. The rich, complex textures gradually gave in to the reason of the cello’s ground as it joined the fray for shorter and shorter spells.

Delgani artistic director True assured the audience that the third movement, “Fury,” was only about three minutes long to discourage anyone who hated it from leaving. Good for him. Delgani delivered a raw, skittering assault on a Shostakovian tune of demonic temperament. The movement throbbed with dense, full ensemble rages, Khachaturian circus scolding, and a mob frenzy of deconstructed chords. The final blow was a unison curse, of course. Exhilarating.

The quartet shone brightly in the closing “Immense,” which reverberated with multiple layers; elegiac, church-choir sonorities; and quiet susurrations. Toward the end, the quartet had a moment of humorous, authentic comradery in a wheezy, cranky, out-of-tune chorale that led to recollections of hocket and murmurations. Higdon’s work pushed the quartet to the edge of comfort—often the arena of greatness.

In Delgani’s sensitive and satisfying performance of George Gershwin’s Lullaby, muted strings shuffled through a tune that struggled to be a waltz, or perhaps a habeñera, popular in 19-century Cuba. The ensemble pulled off the jazzy feel of whistle-like, nasally slurs of closely placed notes above the plucked strings of the cello, minus classical squareness. Hung on a very traditional form (complete with a sweet turnaround), the piece moved through darker Ravel-like intimacy, cowboy camp, and a brief cakewalk to return to the top. To the sound of harmonics—high reedy notes pulled from lower strings—repeating the Spanish-inflected tune and the cello’s sleepy murmurs, the sandman tiptoes in and the child’s head falls to the pillow. Delgani’s technical finesse brought all the “melting pot” influences of Tin Pan Alley to life within Gershwin’s artful understatement. When developed fully, the sensitivity to diverse material the ensemble displayed here will broaden the expressiveness of their studied rapport.

Moving Images

Delgani invited artist Mike Bragg to present his videographic work alongside the music of American Portrait. By embracing this recent trend of presenting moving image art with concert performances, the ensemble allied themselves with vital contemporary trends in performance art.

2_Mike_BraggYet combining live music with moving-image art is a challenging task. Successful attempts that I have witnessed involved improvisation and abstracted imagery. Here, the audience is taken somewhere unfamiliar to experience the thrill of new sights, sounds, and their combinations. However, when an established piece of music is presented with ubiquitous imagery, immediate associations railroad the audience experience and the risk of sentimentalism, melodrama, and unintended humor runs high.

Bragg’s slow-motion pans of mist, mountains, and water breathed common beauty, and, in Sky Quartet, he touched on exquisite territory when sped-up jets etched contrails across vacant blueness, and in a series of brilliantly angled stationary shots of a lone telephone pole commanding approaching and retreating cloud formations. Unfortunately, such is the power of suggestion and the seductiveness of technology that in other places his work suffered from pre-ordained associations, and the canned, God-like powers (mundane as they prove to be) of video tech. It was difficult to give up the music to focus on the images. I believe Mike Bragg will continue to step outside the cage of presets, easy effects, and trade-show production quality that cause so much contemporary moving-image art to be beautiful but stillborn. He has much to offer. I look forward to seeing more of his work, hearing more of Delgani, and perhaps experiencing another combined effort.

Delgani Quartet’s just-announced second season, which begins in November, features classics by Ravel, Shostakovich, Webern, Ives, Smetana, Beethoven and other masters, plus music by Oregon composers and a dose of percussion.

Daniel Tapio Heilä is a composer, video artist and flutist in Eugene.

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