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Recital uplifting with new works

String quartet programs have a way of serving up a standard fare of quartet classics with an occasional new piece. The Spokane String Quartet presented a concert that consisted entirely of works unfamiliar to most of Sunday’s audience. But the program combined familiar styles with an American premiere in topnotch performances and featured two guest musicians.

Meredith Arksey, violin instructor at Washington State University, was the guest first violinist along with the quartet’s regular members violinist Tana Bland, violist Jeanette Wee-Yang and cellist Helen Byrne. The other guest was British composer John Pickard. The concert opened with Pickard’s quartet arrangement of Edward Elgar’s “Sospiri” (sighs), Op. 70, an arrangement made especially for this concert. Originally for string orchestra with harp and organ, the piece is brief, only about five minutes, but it has a depth and quiet seriousness that place it some distance from the composer’s salon pieces such as “Salut d’amour.”

The quartet performed the piece with ample and stylish use of portamento (sliding from one note to the next at important melodic point) typical of the string playing in Elgar’s time. At first it sounded quaintly old-fashioned, but within seconds it was absolutely right for this little work.

On a much grander scale, but at concert rarity nonetheless, the String Quartet on the Theme “B-La-F” was composed by a committee. The Russian composers Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, Borodin and, Glazunov made a musical 50th birthday present for their publisher M.P. Belaieff by writing a full-scale string quartet, each of whose movements used the musical motto drawn from his name – B-flat, A and F. Each composer wrote one of the quartet’s four movements.

A gimmick? Sure, but a gimmick that produced some enjoyable moments along with the fun of toying with that three-note motto. The piece is a rich musical borscht with a big dollop of sour cream.

Belaieff was a violist, so Wee-Yang got more than a dollop all to herself, and she took obvious pleasure in its richness. Easily, the best of the movements was Liadov’s Scherzo whose fast pace and “misplaced” accents kept the movement delightfully off balance. Borodin’s “Spanish Serenade” with its viola solo accompanied by guitar-like pizzicato was fun, as well.

Pickard’s String Quartet No. 4, written in 1998 but just now having its American premiere, was Sunday’s main attraction. Pickard, in his genially witty verbal introduction, claimed that he is “generally puritanical” in his approach to quartet writing. That is, no gimmicks. Well, almost no gimmicks.

Each of the work’s three movements is patterned after a baroque musical form: the first, a sinfonia or overture; the second, four miniature concertos; and the finale, a four-part fantasia. Pickard’s musical language proved quite modern with plenty of biting dissonance and rhythmic tricks but no “special effects” such as playing with the wood of the bow, or whistling bowing by playing near the instrument’s bridge.

Pickard plays with building tension through accumulating dissonance or rhythmic energy, then releasing it with a shift to a quiet section or the use of all the instruments playing in unison. The finale, for example, began very slowly, gradually snowballing to an avalanche of notes pulled up short by a unison passage before speeding to its climax. Sounds simple, but its effect was startling.

The gimmick? The middle movement featured short concertolike passages for each instrument, first Wee-Yang, then Bland, then Byrne. The first violin (Arksey) is always butting in until she gets her turn to solo and the other gang up. The conclusion is a pathetic but very funny whimper.

This is a very difficult piece, but the Spokane Quartet met its challenge beautifully.

If you did not hear this concert, or even if you did, you have another chance to hear Pickard’s strange and marvelous quartet. He and members of the Spokane String Quartet will appear at a lecture recital at Whitworth College at 4 p.m. today at the Seeley Mudd Chapel. The Spokane String Quartet will perform his String Quartet No. 4 and the composer will discuss the work.