Pavel Haas Quartet, Black Violin reviews: on and off the record

Two Portland string-centric concerts show the complementary values of live and recorded performances

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

One thing you can’t get from a live show—portability. I’ve been walking around town listening to Black Violin and the Pavel Haas Quartet everywhere I go. Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself on the bus cranking up BV’s punchy “Rhapsody” (off their first album, Classically Trained); walking home through Ladd’s Addition in the middle of the night, blasting PHQ’s astounding Schubert recordings after a late rehearsal, or in the bath chillaxing with their lovely recent recording of the Smetana quartets; I’m dashing to a composition lesson, late as usual, sneaking in one last round of “Day 2” (off BV’s second album Stereotypes) as I wend my way through throngs of dogs and their students soaking up the late spring sunshine in Portland State’s parks and flowery paths.

Another benefit of recordings, one which well complements the live experience, is their potential to bring non-linear temporality to the whole listening experience. You only hear the music live once (unless you’re following Phish around), but you can listen to the recording over and over again. Hell, you can listen to one movement over and over if you want to, or even just that one super cool break between the bridge and the last chorus. Conversely, when you know a group’s recorded output it gives the live experience a different kind of familiarity; I heard this first hand when I walked into Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last month for Black Violin and the whole audience was already singing the hits. And that works the other direction, too: when I listen to these albums, I remember what I saw and heard at the concerts, making an otherwise dry and solitary activity much more stimulating. …

Black Violin: Live and Recorded

Just this morning my partner and I had a crazy little Breakfast Adventure, trying to find a decent diner-style brunch spot downtown. I was all cranky because I just wanted to get some greasy eggs and coffee and get back to work (on this review), coffee-deprivation was turning into anti-gentrification rage, and the beautiful morning was turning into an unseasonably sweltering Portland afternoon as the sun grimaced down on the southwest sidewalks.

Black Violin’s Wil Baptiste performed in Portland last month. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

We finally ended up at a little cafe on West Burnside, exhausted from our fruitless diner quest, and settled for a couple of breakfast croissants and steaming cups of hot, delicious, hipster coffee. As I sat there steaming over my lost work day, The Universe (or rather one of Her agents, Our Lady Eris), played a little practical joke on me. Drifting out of the quaint cafe’s radio, sandwiched incongruously between aughtsie classics like Modest Mouse’s “Float On” and some Strokes song I couldn’t remember the name of, came the familiar strains of Black Violin’s “Virtuoso”, off their first album, 2012’s Classically Trained. A little jab from a jovial goddess, teasing me out of my grouchy writer’s block. This, too, is what recorded music is for.

Another thing you can’t get from a record: the intimacy of performer and audience. My colleague Maria Choban has already given Black Violin’s mixed Schnitz crowd a better description than I can; I want to know where she goes to “buy her young” because I could use some too. I had to laugh at my stationary Irish ass, flabbily filling a front row seat while everyone around me boogied and cheered and waved their hands in the air.

Portland5 and Chamber Music Northwest brought Black Violin to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

It would be hard to pick a favorite “live” feature from this show: Wil strumming his viola like a uke and leading a sweet sing-along of “Invisible”; Kev taking solo after blistering solo on his badass electric violin, a giant grin radiating out from under his cap; the band’s customary totally improvised number, not just some simple jam (though there were jammy elements, here and throughout) but a full-on group-improvised song, complete with extended down-beat negotiation and impeccable on-the-spot decision-making from the whole group; DJ SPS’s ridiculous turntable skills and witty, PDQ Bach-esque solos; BRAVO Youth Orchestra coming up on stage for “Magic” and the Copland-inspired “Shaker,” starstruck-but-confident young violinist Luis Chan-Hernandez taking the solo with Kev and nailing it with a sly smile while attentively eyeing the older man’s more advanced bowing technique; Wil and Kev encouraging each other and their band and their fans and the kids on stage, pumping each other up, breaking stereotypes, showing “what a black man is capable of” and reminding us that “there’s always hope to fuel the fire.”

Black Violin’s Kev Marcus Sylvester at the duo’s Portland concert. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

Of course, my favorite thing about the show was all the drum solos from Nat Stokes. So many drum solos! You don’t get drum solos like this on your average record, and you certainly don’t get so many, and you most definitely don’t get to share the drummer’s glee when he pulls off a bunch of killer riffage and lets slip a cool little smile as the crowd goes nuts. Being a drummer myself, I usually get a little jealous when I hear drummers whipping out their Dennis Chambers licks, but Stokes was way too cool and groovy for me to get mad at. Dude was having a great time, he laid down sick beats for the stars, he interacted beautifully with DJ SPS, his fills were restrained and tasteful and groovy, and every now and then he’d get the spotlight and just cut loose. Can’t ask for better than that.

Pavel Haas Quartet: Live and Recorded

While I was down at the Schnitz awkwardly swaying my white ass and secretly wishing everyone would stop dancing so I could take notes, Friends of Chamber Music was bringing Pavel Haas Quartet to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall to play Martinů’s third quartet, Dvořák’s famous F major “American” quartet, and Smetana’s first quartet “From My Life” (the Czech group obviously has an affinity for their countrymen). PHQ hasn’t recorded the Martinu (yet), but the other two are readily available. I’m listening to the Dvorak right now, in fact, and it richly deserves all the praise and awards it’s accumulated since its release in 2013.

The next night I heard PHQ play three quartets they have not recorded: Webern’s Five Movements, Shostakovich’s second, and Schubert’s fifteenth. And it’s not like a band touring an upcoming album: PHQ is indeed recording a new album, but it’s another Dvořák set. Will they ever record Shostakovich and Webern? Will we have to wait for another Schubert disc before we hear this one in fully microphoned glory? I must confess that knowing I wouldn’t be able to go back and hear these again made me pay a little closer attention, every little gesture a tasty morsel to be savored and cherished. It seems that this is perfectly normal.

My first composition teacher cautioned me against expecting a live string quartet to sound like a recorded quartet. “Matt, my boy,” he said (because apparently 1999 is long enough ago to make it seem like ye olden days), “they use Technology on those Recordings, a bunch of fancy high-falutin pick-ups and condenser mics and expensive mixing boards and state-of-the-art mastering and gawd knows what all else. Expect yours to be QUIET.” I nodded obediently and jotted down “QUIET” and pretended to long for the age of Papa Haydn’s courtly orchestration and Mendelssohn’s drawing room. And he did actually have a point: recorded chamber music can have an almost overwhelming presence and clarity, especially in the digital age.

I thought of his advice when I was watching (and hearing) PHQ in Lincoln. They were loud! Not Black Violin loud, and that hall is pretty great acoustically, but it was their vigor and confidence that filled the room and rocked my body with waves of sonic rapture. Even the best recording has to go through headphones or speakers, and my headphones are good but not Beats good. Despite the best efforts of generations of recording engineers, nothing really compares to good live classical music in all its rich, omniphonic glory.

Pavel Haas Quartet performed at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

And here’s where the rendition of the minute-long fourth movement of Anton Webern’s Five Movements for Quartet, Op. 5 left something to be desired. It is kind of ridiculous, after all, with all its artificial harmonics, sparse textures, extremely quiet dynamics, and utter lack of clear tonality. It’s always been a favorite, and I was looking forward to hearing it with that super-embodied luxurious live sound—which, incidentally, is exactly what I got in the other Webern movements. I’ve never heard those movements sound so good, not even on my treasured Complete Webern (the old Columbia one Boulez recorded with the Juilliard Quartet), and it’s always nice seeing musicians really dig into the weird stuff. I guess four out of five ain’t bad, and that was just the apéritif.

So what’s the deal with Shostakovich and his crazy obsessive facility with string quartets, anyways? The man slammed through that beloved eighth in a fucking weekend; the spare month he spent roaring through the second seems lazy in comparison. This passionate, immediate intensity is quite audible in the music, I think, and that immediacy is precisely what PHQ sold with their performance. First violinist Veronika Jarůšková was shaking her blonde curls like a rock star all through the opening movement; I haven’t seen a musician lead from the hair so vigorously since the last time Philip Glass Ensemble was in town. Meanwhile, cellist Peter Jarůšek stomped his feet and bounced off his seat and tore his way through the final movement’s variations with shining aplomb, and although second violinist Marek Zwiebel and violist Radim Sedmidubský were a little less overtly energetic they held their own and kept the sound nice and thick.

My first taste of Schubert’s last complete string quartet came from Woody Allen, who used bits of it in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and that movie’s complicated denouement (watch it!) has colored how I hear the quartet ever since. PHQ managed to bring something new to it, though: the playful irony that dashes around the major-minor juxtapositions Schubert is so well known for. They looked and sounded like they were—gasp!—actually having a good time. Dramatic music is fun, after all, even if we’re normally obliged to act all serious in the company of Greatness. I’m proud to report that I managed not to clap between the movements, and with some effort held back the hearty “fuck yeah!” I wanted to shout into the resounding final G major chord. I’ll have to save that for when I listen at home.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a Cascadia Composer and a student of Bonnie Miksch at PSU’s School of Music. He and his music can be reached at composerswatch.proscenia.net/Andrews_Matthew_Neil.htm

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