The Spokane String Quartet Sunday, March 17, at The Met
The music of Arnold Schoenberg still has the power to shock audiences.
The Spokane String Quartet and its guests, reciter Johanne Blank and pianist David Rostkoski, proved it with a fierce performance of Schoenberg’s raging “Ode to Napoleon” at The Met Sunday.
The program included more familiar works by Haydn and Beethoven and a couple of short surprise pieces.
I usually do not comment on the concerts of the Spokane String Quartet. Its members - violinists Kelly Farris and Jane Blegen, violist Tracy Dunlop and cellist John Marshall - are, after all, my colleagues at Eastern Washington University, the school where the group is quartet-in-residence.
Just blame my willingness to write about them now on a beautiful St. Patrick’s Day afternoon and the absence of a newspaper colleague who usually writes about them.
“Ode to Napoleon” was Schoenberg’s 1942 volley against the arrogance of dictators such as Hitler, from whose rule the composer had fled in 1933. The text is by Lord Byron, whose disgust with the cowardly abdication of Napoleon in 1814 caused the poet to heap scorn on dictators with “fronts of brass and feet of clay” from Nebuchadnezzar and Tamerlane to Napoleon himself.
The success of Schoeberg’s “Ode” depends not only on the ability of the instrumentalists to come to grips with the composer’s unrelenting technical demands but to find a reciter who can handle Schoenberg’s wickedly difficult vocal part. Its rhythms are precisely notated, but only the direction of pitch inflection is indicated, not the pitches themselves.
The result is a maddening mix of spoken singing.
Johanne Blank teaches voice at Whitworth College and is heard on public radio station KPBX in a series on vocal music. Blank’s excellence at traditional classical music from Bach to Menotti has been heard here and elsewhere.
Blank has a fine theatrical gift that matches her musical talent. Her expressive way with Byron’s ironic sneering and ranting anger was underlined by splendid playing by Rostkoski and the quartet.
As a surprise salute to St. Patrick’s Day, Blank performed two lilting but delightfully modern Irish songs accompanied by composer-pianist David P. Jones.
If Schoenberg’s music still has the power to shock after more than 50 years, Joseph Haydn’s still retains an amazing power to smile. Haydn had a startling ability to create harmonic surprises, to ambush the listener with rhythmic irregularities and to make melodies that seem just a few notes too long or too short to be quite “normal.”
The Spokane Quartet’s elegance and enthusiasm in Haydn’s Quartet in G major, a work written 200 years ago, brought out every witty gesture in the music.
Beethoven’s late Quartet, Op. 130, ended Sunday’s performance. It is a long, complex work - one of the greatest challenges of the quartet repertoire. I was surprised at the absence of secure intonation and precise coordination heard in the playing of the usually dependable Kelly Farris.
I later learned that Farris experienced a backstage fall that produced a painful left-hand sprain. Too bad, for the performance had many moments of great beauty.
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