Martinů Quartet preview: From Prague to Portland

Czech string quartet plays music of its homeland and Portland’s Tomáš Svoboda.


On Thursday and Friday, Friends of Chamber Music gives Oregon music lovers the gift of an all-Czech program by one of that country’s leading musical ensembles, the Martinů Quartet. Expect insightful performances by musicians steeped in their native repertory: the artistic lineage of descendant Czech masters Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů, and Portland’s own Tomáš  Svoboda.

As both a teacher (he taught composition for many years at Portland State University before retiring in 1998), and inspiring artist, Svoboda has contributed significantly to developing the craft of musical composition and contemporary art music performance within our vibrant artistic community. I didn’t attend PSU, so never sat in his classes. Over several years (in the mid-1980s) we’d meet occasionally when I wanted his criticism of a new score. Anticipation of his generous spirit always led me with excitement to our sessions, even while knowing that his rigorous standards might cause me to depart, asking myself, “What was I thinking writing that one phrase like that?”

Svoboda and Gabel in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Gabel and Svoboda in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Svoboda composed his first string quartet at age 19, the second thirty years later and finally in 2002 he embarked on an intensive navigation of the form, authoring ten quartets in eight years. About this time, Svoboda began working with the Martinů Quartet. Together they pursued a mission to record all twelve quartets at sessions in Prague studios, when Tomáš and his wife Jana visited old friends there. He’d return to Portland with masters in hand and we worked together on release packaging.

The three quartets on this week’s Friends of Chamber Music concerts come from the final volume, not yet released. There were plans to bring it out, but then Tomáš suffered his massive stroke at the end of 2012. Since then, while he’s been recovering, nothing has been done with the recordings. I hope they’ll be available before much longer.

String Quartet No. 9, Op. 193 (2010) is strikingly narrative, almost cinematic. Svoboda writes that he was inspired by the story of an immigrant who, unable to culturally integrate, finally chose suicide. In addition to being one of Svoboda’s most programmatic chamber works, the quartet reveals an important aspect of Svoboda’s artistic approach: always seeking new and unusual structures. The first movement opens with chordal voicing so dense, one would expect its dissonant, weighty texture to serve as a destination rather than a point of departure. It thins into a quixotic mood at the structural apex, and then returns to the thick, airless, opening dread — essentially inverting the more typical structure, perhaps shaping the awkward misfit. The second movement offers hope, but it runs out of control as our tragic protagonist compulsively attempts to think through his desperate confusion. In the finale, he breaks down, trying to reason some way out … he descends into irreversible resignation.

String Quartet No. 10, Op. 194 (2007) was inspired by a dream of the composer’s homeland and its native folk music: robust, playful, affirmative, the Quartet is one of sustained joy and tenderness. It opens and closes its first movement with perhaps some of the most lyrical writing in any Svoboda score — touching and sweet. As with so much of Svoboda’s music, it sounds like he’s quoting extant folk tunes, but not so. Instead, you’re hearing Svoboda’s synthesis of his Czech musical legacy. Then follows an internal buildup and extended, driving ostinato — classic Svoboda, which could well serve any aspiring composer as a pointed lesson in how to artistically finesse getting into and out of a section of repetitive figures. It exemplifies the technical execution at which Svoboda is a master. The second movement is a brisk dance, the third, meditative and plaintive. The closing vivace delivers a typically intricate contrapuntal Svoboda idée fix — another carefully crafted ostinato — opening quietly then building and pressing relentlessly to an unrestrained dance of joy and focused conclusion.

Svoboda describes Quartet No. 12 Op. 202 (2010) “Post Scriptum” as a work of deep feeling in which all human experience is accepted and transformed into tenderness. We hear both great joy and intense pain, beyond optimism and pessimism. It opens with a simple, quiet, hymn-like chorale. Declamatory and stately, the adagio second movement engages imitative Renaissance counterpoint. The closing movement opens with a lively triplet foundation, supporting a soaring, cantus-like melody in rhythmic counterpoint, which evolves into a spirited dance, thus concluding the entire cycle of quartets with irrepressible joy, beyond life’s pain.

Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music brings the Martinů Quartet to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. On Thursday, April 16, they play Svoboda Quartet No. 10, Op. 194; Svoboda Quartet No. 9, Op. 193; Dvořák Quartet in A-flat Major, Op. 105. On Friday, April 17, the ensemble performs Smetana Quartet No. 2 in D minor; Martinů Quartet No. 2; Janáček Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”; Svoboda Quartet No. 12, Op. 202, “Post Scriptum.” Tickets are available online

Portland composer Jack Gabel is a former student of Tomáš Svoboda and founder of North Pacific Music, the record label that has released eight collections of Svoboda’s music, including his first two volumes of string quartets.

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