All Classical Radio James Depreist

“Just going over home”: Delgani String Quartet with Kenji Bunch

The Eugene-based quartet partners with the violist-composer-polymath for a week of shows featuring “our Oregonian superstar” alongside Haydn and Brahms.

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Composer-violist-polymath Kenji Bunch. Photo courtesy of the composer.

The Delgani String Quartet paired up with Kenji Bunch for the third program of their season. The program features the local composer and violist’s string quintet String Circle, sandwiched between Haydn’s String Quartet in G major and Brahms’ String Quintet in F major. Following last weekend’s performances in Eugene, the quartet will perform the same program again in Corvallis, Portland, and Salem this weekend (tickets and more information are available at Delgani’s website).

We at Oregon ArtsWatch are big fans of the Delgani String Quartet. The ensemble opens the bio on their website with a choice quote from us calling them “the state’s finest chamber ensemble,” written by Brett Campbell back in 2018. Six years later, that bold statement remains reasonable. I attribute this to Campbell’s choice word “finest,” rather than “greatest,” “best,” or “most accomplished.” The latter words evoke competition, as if music was supposed to be a great debate about who was better: Jordan or LeBron? Messi or Ronaldo? Williams or Sharpova? But the finest ensemble seems more a statement of values than of quality. There are many great chamber groups in Portland, and what Delgani does exemplifies finesse and virtuosity.

To get a preview for what the upcoming shows will offer, I watched their live-streamed performance, recorded at a performance in Eugene on March 17. In correspondence with Delgani cellist Eric Alterman, he told me that having five performances in one week keeps each show fresh and spontaneous. It also allows them to reach audiences outside the Portland metro area, where much of the classical music happens in the state. He said that familiar faces show up to each show, having cultivated an enthusiastic audience in spots up and down the I-5 corridor. Alterman said via email:

Preparing each concert program takes a lot of time and energy. It’s a labor of love. I feel fortunate that Delgani gets to share these programs at least 5 times in 4 different cities, and it’s fun to see how our performance evolves over the course of a week. It gives us the chance to relax into the music, embrace some spontaneity, and try some different musical ideas from concert to concert. 5 concerts is also fairly low compared with many quartets that tour extensively. It keeps the music feeling fresh, which might not be the case after 10 or more performances. I can guarantee we’re never bored with our program!

Forming a relationship with our audience is central to Delgani’s mission. Many of our audience members have seen us dozens of times over the last 10 years, and it is heartwarming to see familiar faces in each city and have conversations after each concert. It is inspiring to play for people who have followed our musical growth over all this time, and to get to know each other on a more personal level. We’ve become something like a musical, extended family!

The Show

The concert opens with Haydn’s String Quartet in G major from the Opus 77 “Lobkowitz” collection. Haydn is the father of the string quartet, and wrote nearly seventy of them. His music, sitting at the high point of Viennese classicism, overflows with clever transitions and modulations. Charming melodies get twisted and mangled, and there’s always something unexpected waiting. 

Delgani’s performance of the Haydn featured an opening movement that flowed very nicely, with each dramatic shift and texture change feeling smooth. Haydn’s string quartets run through all sorts of musical and emotional ideas, and it can be tough to string them all together without it feeling jarring. (I like to think that Haydn himself, having to write so much music for his patrons of the Esterhazy Family, had to come up with new ideas to keep each piece sounding fresh–or to keep himself from getting bored.) 

Bunch’s String Circle pays homage to American string music. Throughout much of his music, Bunch makes an effort to step outside the classical tradition and take inspiration from all sorts of folk and popular music. In his program notes he cites inspiration from Bela Bartók alongside Appalachian fiddle music and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. The fourth movement uses plucked strings, evoking the sound of mandolins and banjos, instruments foundational to American folk music. Country and early rock and roll legend Johnny Cash also died during the piece’s inception, and a bit of that country outlaw spirit finds its way into String Circle

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The Bartók comparison is a more subtle one. The whole piece follows the structure of Bartók’s fourth string quartet: an arch form in five moments, with whole movements dedicated to one string texture (counterpoint, mutes, pizzicato). 

After Kenji Bunch walks onstage with the ensemble, violinist Anthea Kreston declares him “our Oregonian superstar–and he’s so relaxed about it!” After she passes the mic, Bunch tells the story of the piece’s origin and first performance. It was the first time he wrote a piece for himself to play, uniting his parallel lives as a performer and composer. And speaking to his humility, he wrote a part for himself imbued within the ensemble, rather than as a soloist. Kreston wrote to ArtsWatch:

Kenji is super relaxed. He is a perfect practice partner – he knows when to pipe up with some sage advice, when to just go with the flow, and when to crack a joke or tell a story. He has such an interesting life, and brings that perspective with him to any group. He is equal parts performer, composer, historian, and theoretician.

The opening features ensemble pizzicati in a rustic D dorian over Alterman’s cello drone on the D and A strings. Quick rhythms crash over each other like waves on the side of a wooden sailing ship. The second movement–the Bob Wills tribute–casts close string harmonies that fall between rich jazz harmonies and aggressive seconds against a syncopated cello bass line. 

The slow middle movement sets “The Wayfaring Stranger” in drawn-out harmonies over a descending bass line. We also get to hear a mournful duet between violists Bunch and Uwate that grows in richness. Then the strings climb upwards towards the stratosphere, as a text painting of the ballad’s lyrics of heavenly repose: “I am going there to see my savior, who shed for me his precious blood. I am just going over Jordan, I am just going over home.” 

True to Bartók’s Fourth, the fourth movement sets the bows down. Partway through, Bunch turns his viola sideways to strum it like a ukulele. There are plenty of cheeky moments, with many pauses and tempo changes, along with some pizzicato glissandi, sounding like a cartoon mouse creeping through the house at night on the hunt for cheese. The final movement drives with a groovy sixteenth note pulse with off-beat stabs and strident dissonances and chromatic legato lines. If this movement is supposed to evoke funk music al a Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, it is by way of a Bartókean pungency. 

Delgani String Quartet with Kenji Bunch in Eugene. Photo by Wyatt True.
Delgani String Quartet with Kenji Bunch in Eugene. Photo by Wyatt True.

After the intermission comes the Brahms. Brahms thought highly of his String Quintet in F major–surprising, given his notorious perfectionism. The addition of another viola to a string quartet adds a new dimension to Brahms’ chamber music style. The added depth darkens the tone of the whole ensemble, bringing an even more melancholy tone to his contrapuntal, bottom-heavy approach to string writing. It also gives him another rhythmic layer to play with throughout the quintet’s polyrhythmic moments–especially in the first movement.

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The theme of the first movement is a pastoral melody that reminds me of “the Twelve Days of Christmas,” believe it or not. But it doesn’t sit there long, taking the listener through a whirlwind of variations and modulating all over the place before returning back home. Brahms’ style really shines in his music’s softer, slower moments. The second movement is a rondo of sorts, alternating between a dreary, grave C-sharp minor and scherzo-like major key dance sections. The finale builds from a fast eighth-note fugue subject that folds out into a sprawling complex, reminiscent of the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, or the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth

With a jovial first half, one would expect Brahms’ quintet on the back half to contrast dramatically in tone. “Playful” is about the last thing I look for from Brahms, but there are plenty of sudden twists throughout, brought to life by Delangi plus Bunch’s performance. Their interpretation makes the F major quintet a fitting complement to the upbeat first set, even if it is filtered through Brahms’ typical studiousness.

You can get tickets here for their Corvallis show this Friday at 7:30, their Portland show on Saturday at 7:30, or their Salem show Sunday at 3. Delgani ends their season in early May with a series of shows featuring string quartets by Franz Schubert and Leos Janacek. 

Teaching for the future

What’s next for Delgani? Alterman tells Artswatch:

I’m excited for our summer String Quartet Academy, which we are holding in Portland for the first time after 9 summers in Cottage Grove. The University of Portland campus allows us to reach more students, offer top notch facilities for rehearsal and coaching, and invite guest faculty members. Having relocated to Portland myself last fall, I’m especially excited to see Delgani make a greater impact in this community. On that same note, I’m looking forward to Delgani’s first visits to Portland elementary schools.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

 

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