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A short flight into the pasts: Catalyst Quartet uncovers remarkable composers

CQ concert for CMNW at The Old Church featured Fanny Mendelssohn, Germaine Tailleferre, and short works by several contemporary composers.


Catalyst Quartet. Photo courtesy of the artists.
Catalyst Quartet. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Funny–when Catalyst Quartet played April 16 at The Old Church, its touted new-music repertoire didn’t thrill the audience as much as Fanny Mendelssohn’s early 19th-century String Quartet in E-Flat Major, No. 1, Op. 22. She wrote the piece in 1834 when she was 28 years old. It languished, unpublished, until 1989. Queen Victoria loved it, though she thought Fanny’s famous brother Felix wrote it, a logical conclusion in those only-male-composer times. Fanny died at 41, her work mostly unheard other than by her family and Great Britain’s monarch, but her music lives on thanks to the efforts of Catalyst Quartet and other innovative chamber groups.

The Catalyst Quartet, the artist-in-residence ensemble this year for Chamber Music Northwest that presented this concert, included Fanny’s 23-minute piece in its “Uncovered: Remarkable Women Composers” concert. The four-movement, violin-soaring Mendelssohn piece pulled the Catalyst Quartet members’ feet off the ground, brought flushes to their faces, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez wiped his brow. 

The audience was on its feet as well. 

The 13-year-old Catalyst Quartet springs from the 25-year-old Detroit-based Sphinx organization, designed to encourage the careers of musicians of color and to reset the tempo and broaden the reach and inclusiveness of classical music. The Sphinx Virtuosi, a group of its flagship professionals, performed at The Reser in Beaverton last October (see my story) and at Carnegie Hall shortly thereafter. The organization has gained even more momentum lately since it received a large infusion of money from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and ex-wife of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos.

The Catalyst has recovered and uncovered countless pieces of unknown or little-known works by people of color, women, and other previously overlooked musicians. They have made three albums of works from such composers as Florence Price and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and they are gathering material for their fourth Uncovered LP.

In their digging, they discovered French composer Germaine Tailleferre’s only string quartet, titled simply String Quartet, completed in 1919, and they played it during the second part of the mid-April concert. As CQ violinist Abi Fayette remarked, the quartet is “miniaturized but complete” in its 10 minutes of color, composition, style and subtle ending. Also remarkable: its opening movement was composed in C Sharp minor, an oddball key for a string quartet and string quartet opening movement.

With her many musical awards and accolades, Tailleferre was the only woman in Les Six in the 1920s. The young French group with Francis Poulenc and Louis Durey set out to compose free of the influences of Richard Wagner or Impressionism. Tailleferre proved to be a prolific composer despite being—guess what?–-discouraged by her family. She composed up to her death in 1983 at 91 years old. 

“Le Groupe de six,” oil on canvas, Jacques-Émile Blanche. In the center : pianist Marcelle Meyer. From bottom to top: Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Jean Wiener. On the right: Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Jean Cocteau.
“Le Groupe de six,” oil on canvas, Jacques-Émile Blanche. In the center : pianist Marcelle Meyer. From bottom to top: Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Jean Wiener. On the right: Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Jean Cocteau.

CQ Minutes

The most remarkable pieces on April 16 were the program’s first: the “CQ Minute” works. The Catalyst Quartet commissioned nine of its favorite composers to make 2-minute compositions. They were accompanied eventually by video and are now on Instagram. The group played Caroline Shaw’s “Bittersweet Synonym,” Angelica Negrón’s “Lo infinito,” Jessie Montgomery’s ever-building “Build” (she was a previous Catalyst Quartet member and visited Portland several times in recent years as the in-residence composer for the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival), and ended with Joan Tower’s ferocious “A Short Flight,” which brought to mind persistently feisty bumblebees (Tower was also a composer-in-residence with the WVCMF).

Other project composers included Billy Childs, rumored to play at Portland’s 1905 jazz club in May, and Portland composer/percussionist Andy Akiho. Two other 2-minute tunes were added after a competition—the group acknowledged it couldn’t just choose one. This summer, Chamber Music Northwest will present all 11 works on July 12 during the New at Night concert at the Armory. Catalyst’s elegant violist Paul Laraia explained on All Classical Portland “Thursdays at Three” April 13 radio broadcast that the pieces were designed with social media and short attention spans in mind and included video to slake the restless visual thirst of listeners.

Aside from performing concerts this summer–there will be three during Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival, including the New at Night concert with the CQ Minute pieces–the group has been making the rounds to reach young musicians such as those in Bravo Youth Orchestras, Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Portland Youth Philharmonic. They’ve visited students at Roosevelt High School, and as Catalyst Quartet violinist Karla Donehew Perez noted, “connecting with performing musicians is an important part of growth,” and one that she took to heart as a younger musician.

Portland is lucky to have such a high-energy, creative, education-focused group as Catalyst Quartet in its musical midst.

Note: this concert will available to stream April 30 through May 14 as part of CMNW’s At-Home series. Access and more information is available here.

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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