Busy Altius Quartet returns to CU Jan. 21–22

Three concerts by the Takacs Quartet will feature appearances by CU faculty artists

By Peter Alexander

The Altius Quartet is on the move.

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altos Quartet. Photo by Courtney Huffmann.

Formerly quartet-in-residence with CU’s esteemed Takacs Quartet, Altius has found themselves very busy, building their already-blossoming career. Since completing the residency, the group—comprising Andrew Giordano and Joshua Ulrich, violin, Andrew Krimm, viola, and Zachary Reaves, cello—has kept Colorado as their home base while recording two CDs, taking a trip to Beijing to collaborate with composer Bright Sheng, completing a tour of California, and giving other performances in Boulder and elsewhere.

Next they will appear on the Takacs concert series, with performances in CU’s Grusin Music Hall Sunday and Monday, Jan. 21 and 22. The series continues through the spring, with performances by the Takacs Quartet Feb. 4-5, March 11-12 and April 29-30.

A major work on the Jan. 21-22 program is taken from Altius’s recent CD of music by Shostakovich, the personal and darkly expressive String Quartet No. 8. Written in a time of despair for the composer, it is dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war,” but it is above all a reflection of Shostakovich’s own bleak thoughts at the time.

Other works on the program are Haydn’s well known “Emperor” String Quartet in C major, which includes a set of variations on “God Save Emperor Francis,” the anthem the composer wrote for Austrian Emperor Francis III; Through Fog, written for the Altius Quartet by JP Merz; and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor, op. 44 no. 2.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Altius Quartet
Music of Haydn, Shostakovich, JP Merz and Mendelssohn

4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21
7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 22
Grusin Music Hall

Takacs Quartet
Music of Mozart, Vaughan-William and Dohnányi
With Matthew Chellis and Andrew Cooperstock, piano

4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4
7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5
Grusin Music Hall

Music of Mozart, Boccherini, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Beethoven
With Nicolò Spera, guitar

4 p.m. Sunday, March 11
7:30 p.m. Monday, March 12
Grusin Music Hall

Music of Dohnányi, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky
With Erika Eckert, viola, and David Requiro, cello

4 p.m. Sunday, April 29
7:30 p.m. Monday, April 30
Grusin Music Hall

All tickets through CU Presents

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Three New CDs have Boulder connections

Music by Max Wolpert, performances by Altius, and Starkland’s latest

By Peter Alexander

Wolpert.CDAmanda Harberg: Viola Concerto; Elegy
Max Wolpert: Viola Concerto No. 1, “Giants”
Brett Deubner, viola; Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, Linus Lerner, conductor
Naxos American Classics 8.559840

Max Wolpert is the only composer I can think of who has begun a piece of music with the end of the world.

What could come after that? As it turns out, quite a bit in Wolpert’s Viola Concerto, subtitled “Giants.” As recently recorded by violist Brett Deubner, for whom the concerto was written, and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra with conductor Linus Lerner, “Giants” is an attractive, effective and intriguing bit of musical depiction.

The title comes from Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Each movement refers to a different giant, starting with Father Time as imagined in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. A giant who slumbers deep beneath the earth, Father Time is awakened to “blow his horn and call the stars down from the sky.” If Wolpert’s end of the world is not as apocalyptic as we might expect, the chimes and final trumpet calls make a clear announcement.

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Max Wolpert

After this mild apocalypse, Wolpert looks to the sky and the familiar cloud-dwelling giant, soothed by a magic harp. Here, a lovely harp solo accompanies lyrical lines in the solo part. The sky giant grumblingly awakes when the harp ceases, to orchestral chords that call out “fee-fie-fo-fum.” As the harp resumes, the threat is evaded.

The third giant is a rollicking “Cloud Woman” who enjoys thunderstorms as “a wild dance party.” Her revels are evoked by a “Balkan-influenced groove,” with lots of non-symmetrical rhythms.

There is a clever bit of musical symbolism running throughout. Wolpert sees the disappearance of giants as the diminishing of the world. “To encapsulate this notion,” he writes, “the concerto is framed around a melodic interval which gradually diminishes”: A fifth in the first movement, a fourth in the second movement, and a third in the final movement.

Wolpert, who lives in Boulder and works at Rocky Ridge Music Center, describes himself as a “composer and storyteller,” and the giants are depicted vividly in his music. It’s all great fun, and this must be a pleasure to play. An accessible piece for audiences, I can imagine this Concerto showing up on programs for both adults and children. Brett Deubner plays with a lovely, deep viola sound, lyrical flow and great technical assurance.

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Brett Deubner

The disc is filled out with another Viola Concerto written for Deubner, by Amanda Harberg. The second movement, described as “a meditation on the fragility of life” is particularly lovely, again combining the viola with harp—an especially congenial pairing—at the outset.

The final piece on the disc is Harburg’s Elegy, written for piano and viola and arranged by the composer for viola with strings for Deubner to play. Written in memory of Harberg’s piano teacher and drawing from the same well as the concerto’s slow movement, this is an even more lovely and deeply affecting piece of music. I have a suggestion for orchestral programmers: the next time you need music for a somber occasion, perform Harberg’s Elegy.

The Southern Arizona Symphony is a community orchestra located in Tucson. Aiming to have an influence outside their own region, they have recorded, toured to China, and commissioned new works. If lacking brilliance or exceptional power, their performance is never less than effective.

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Altius.coverShostakovich: String Quartets 7, 8 & 9
Altius Quartet
Navona Records NV6125

 The Boulder-based Altius Quartet, formerly in residence with the Takas at CU, have released their second full CD, and it is one to be relished by their fans.

After their somewhat whimsical first recording, “Dress Code,” with its offbeat mix of Haydn, Led Zeppelin, and others, they have turned to a more weighty region of the quartet repertoire: the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth quartets of Shostakovich. Written at a critical point in the composer’s life, 1960 and 1964, these quartets are deadly serious and challenging to even the most experienced, mature quartets.

For the most part, the Altius prove themselves equal to the task. The members of the quartet are never less than completely assured in playing this challenging music, and they know what they want the music to say.

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Altius Quartet

From the first notes of the Seventh Quartet, they play with a nervous energy and palpable anxiety that matches the composer’s life under the Soviet state. Their tightly controlled performance of the Seventh reflects Shostakovich’s emotional state in 1960, suggesting that there is a hidden emotional depth that could burst through at any time.

The Eight Quartet was a literal cry of despair, written when Shostakovich was contemplating a suicide that his friends may have only just averted. Here the performance is cold, distant, at times as bleak as the composer’s mood. Even the demonic waltz of the third movement seems repressed.

I like more threat in the ominous thee-chord outbursts—recalling every Soviet citizen’s greatest fear, the KGB’s knock in the middle of the night—but the performance is consistent in its restraint. There is a brief moment of warmth near the beginning of the fifth movement, but that too fades into desolation. It’s not easy to enjoy this music, but this is a performance to admire.

Written four years later, the Ninth Quartet is somewhat sunnier, if not exactly cheerful. This is again music of great complexity, but the Altius plays with a remarkable transparency of texture throughout—you can hear every individual line. Restraint is again the keyword for the performance, and the shifting character of the movements is well delineated.

The disc is more than three works by the same composer: it is a satisfying whole, helped both by the selection of works, moving from anguish to near-manic cheerfulness in the composer’s outlook, and by the Altius Quartet’s keen perception and effective communication of the emotional narrative.

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Myers.CDDavid Lee Myers: Ether Music
Starkland ST-227

Boulder’s Starkland records has released a CD by one of the pioneers of electronic music, David Lee Myers. Also creating under the name Arcane Device, Myers has been constructing his own sound-producing electronic circuitry since 1980 and has more than 30 CDs to his credit.

The winner of Global Music silver medals for Creativity/Originality and Innovation in Sound, Ether Music features “Feedback Music,” comprised of sounds that are entirely generated by electronics—or as the printed notes explain it: “The album’s content spontaneously emerged from Myers’ self-designed, hand-built conglomerations of elaborately interconnected sound processing devices, with no external input.”

From the raw material of electronic hums, pops, clicks, thumps, and other sounds, Myers has crafted ten separate pieces. The different sounds are layered in ways both simple and complex, creating varied and shifting clouds of sound.

I know that not everyone will hear this as “music,” depending on how they define the word, but it is certainly creative use of sound. Like most of Starkland’s releases, hearing it expands the listener’s horizons and opens the ears to new possibilities.

Each track pulls you into a distinct world. Some of these worlds seem familiar, some are exotic, some are hallucinogenic, and they all invite exploration. If Myers’ work has a weakness, it is the difficulty of using electronic sounds to build the tension and subsequent release that comes naturally to tonal music. Lacking a definitive closing gesture to resolve the music’s journeys, many of the tracks simply fade into silence, letting the final mood linger without resolution.

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David Lee Myers

That said, every piece is worth hearing. If you wish to be engaged by new sounds, you should hear the entire CD. Of the ten tracks, the first, implicate order, is a good place to start because the layers of the texture are easily heard in their transformations and interactions. A pulsating, swelling and subsiding electronic drone is overlaid with drum-like clatters and clunks.

The third track, astabilized, is the most obviously derived from electronic feedback, including buzzes, static and electronic insect sounds. The fifth track, arabic science, features pitched drones and lines that sweep up and down the scale. The impression of a distant wailing chorus, birds and insects all invite the imagination to create a dramatic scenario.

The very rhythmic sixth track, the dynamics of particles, starts with bongo-like pops and snaps, soon joined by other pitched pulses that rise and fall in pitch. The steady meter of the drum sounds makes this one of the most purely enjoyable tracks.

Another thoroughly enjoyable track, radial axial, conjures a Fellini-esque world as if from a 1950s movie. A woozy electronic organ is transformed into a theremin—the staple sound of 1950s sci-fi—then a harmonica, then a wheezing calliope before shuffling off into the distance.

It must be great fun to create these pieces, and I find it great fun to sample, either all at once or just the occasional excursion into one or two of Myers’ sound worlds. Whether it adds up to deeper artistry probably depends on your taste and concept of musical art, but no one is likely to remain untouched by the wide creativity contained in this album.

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NOTE: A correction was posted 12.4.17. An earlier version of the story had stated incorrectly that Harberg’s Elegy had been arranged for viola and string by Deubner. It was arranged for Deubner by the composer.

Ajax Quartet chosen for Takacs Quartet residency

New graduate ensemble wins audition for two-year appointment at CU

By Peter Alexander

The Ajax Quartet, a string ensemble that is less than a year old, has won the audition to study with the Takacs String Quartet at the CU College of Music, starting in September. They will succeed the Altius Quartet in the highly coveted position as the designated graduate string quartet-in-residence at the college.

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Ajax Quartet

The four members of the quartet—violinists Tom Yaron, Renée Hemsing-Patten, violist Mario Rivera and cellist Eric Haugen—came to the CU from different parts of the country. “There’s not any way we could have met up before CU,” Hemsing-Patten says.

“The faculty members, having auditioned all of us and knowing our playing, seemed to think we would play well together. So they introduced us to each other, and they were completely right! We hit it off right away.”

Only three weeks after they had starting working together, the Takacs asked the Ajax Quartet to play one piece for an event at The Academy. Members of the Takacs Quartet offered to coach the new group prior to that performance.

“We hadn’t even thought about auditioning for the Takacs program at that time,” Hemsing-Patten says. “But as things progressed over the fall semester, we just began to feel like everything was working out really well, and decided to go ahead and shoot for that. There was an official audition in early February.”

Having won the CU residency is the realization of a dream for the members of the quartet, she says. “I listened to recordings of them because my grandma was a violinist in quartets since I was a kid, so I’ve known who they are through my entire life. And I know the other guys have as well. It’s a dream to be able to work with them.

“We have all wanted to play in a quartet in different points in our lives, and have just never found the right group, so for us it’s something we’re really serious about pursuing.”

There will be opportunities to hear the Ajax Quartet in Boulder in the coming weeks, before their official performances as graduate quartet-in-residence next fall. At 4 p.m. Saturday, April 29, they will play a full concert at the Carillon, and at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 9, they will share a concert at the Academy with the Altius String Quartet. For the second program, the Ajax Quartet will play Dvořák’s American String Quartet, and both groups together will play Mendelssohn’s popular Octet for Strings.

Both performances will be free and open to the public.

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Ajax Quartet
4 p.m. Saturday, April 29
The Carillon, 2525 Taft Dr., Boulder

Ajax Quartet and Altius String Quartet|
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 9
The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave., Boulder
Dvořák: String Quartet in F major, Op. .96, “American” (Ajax Quartet)
Work TBD (Altius String Quartet)
Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat major for strings

Both concerts are free.

Mixing things up on CD and at the Dairy

From Led Zeppelin to Haydn with the Altius Quartet

By Peter Alexander

The Altius Quartet likes to mix things up.

nv6078-dresscode-frontcoverThe string quartet in residence at the CU College of Music, Altius just released a new CD, Dress Code, which does just that, in original and unexpected ways. And they have a concert Saturday at the Dairy Arts Center, “The Many Faces of the Altius Quartet,” that aims in part for the same goal (details below).

“Part of our identity from the getgo has been, how do we introduce people to classical music who otherwise wouldn’t set foot in a concert hall,” cellist Zachary Reaves says. “When we were still in college we would play shows in pubs, and we’d start with Led Zeppelin or whatever. We’d immediately follow it with a Haydn quartet. It was amazing how people’s reaction to Haydn was when they knew we also played Hendrix.”

Ever since the Kronos Quartet broke that ground in the 1970s, a lot of ensembles have mixed popular music with contemporary and standard classical pieces. Altius goes beyond that, in both the CD and the Dairy program, by scrambling the classical pieces in creative ways.

Take the play list for Dress Code. Just like their pub sets, it includes both Led Zeppelin and Haydn. But the Haydn Quartet—Op. 74 no. 1—is spread across the disc, with other pieces between the movements. Those other pieces include Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as well as three rags by William Bolcom and other pop arrangements.

That description doesn’t quite do justice to the quirky and slyly subversive playlist. Apparent stylistic whiplash is better conveyed by the whole list—and even better by hearing the CD from beginning to end.

  1. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op 74 no. 1, I. Allegro Moderato
  2. Dave Brubeck/Michael Jackson: Take it (arranged Reaves)
  3. William Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag
  4. Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven (arr. Reaves)
  5. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, II Andantino grazioso
  6. Bolcom: Poltergeist Rag
  7. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, III Menuetto
  8. Bolcom: Incineratorag
  9. Ben E King: Stand by Me (arr. Reaves)
  10. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, IV Vivace
  11. a-ha: Take on Me (arr. Reaves)

Altius.1“The idea was that instead of putting all four movements of the Haydn together, for maybe a millennial to skip over, to intersperse it, while giving a taste of what a string quartet sounds like,” Reaves says. “In the arrangements, we try to sound like a classical ensemble, playing pieces that people are familiar with. Then, when they get used to that sound, listening to a Haydn quartet is not so weird.“

The same aesthetic applies in the program for the Dairy. In this case the most unorthodox program choice is a set of Beethoven scherzos, from three different string quartets: Op. 18 no. 6, Op. 59 no. 1 (“Razumovsky”) and Op. 131—one early quartet, one middle and one late.

This idea was hatched between Reaves and James Bailey, curator of the Dairy’s music series. “Bailey’s become a great friend,” Reaves says. “He and I will just talk about ‘What kind of weird things can we do?’ This program is a brainchild between him and me, showcasing how (Beethoven’s) style in general but also specifically his style in scherzos evolved over his entire career.”

The program also includes Through Fog, a piece written for the Altius Quartet by J.P. Merz, who was a masters composition student at CU when he wrote it. “We performed it at Carnegie Hall in November,” Reaves says. “It’s been a huge hit.”

For a portion of the concert, the members of Altius will be joined by violist Stephanie Mientka and cellist Matt Zalkind to perform three sextets: Atlantic Jigpipe by Mientka’s brother Gabriel; Reaves’s arrangement of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody; and Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night).

If the stylistic mix sounds disorienting, I should note that the decisive playing of the Altius moderates the stylistic dislocations. Played with conviction and stylistic clarity, Haydn and Queen sit comfortably together on the same stage.

This is in the quartet’s toolkit, no doubt because, as Reaves says: ”We all grew up listening to so many different kinds of music that it’s hard to pick one.” But it is also a mark of their solid training and great musicianship that Dress Code is an artistic success as well as a milestone in the young quartet’s career.

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Altius has been in Boulder for nearly three years, working with the Takacs Quartet. They will shortly complete their residency, but they plan to stay in the Boulder area as they pursue a career as a professional string quartet. “We’ve kind of fallen in love with area,” the quartet’s cellist, Zachary Reaves, explains. “Being close to the mountains, but aside from that, we’ve met a lot of great people here and made a lot of really good contacts.”

In addition to Dress Code, they have also recorded an album of music by Shostakovich, which will come out in the fall. In the meantime, they will celebrate the first album with a CD release party 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13, at Caffè Sole, 637R South Broadway in Boulder (Broadway and Table Mesa Drive).

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Dress Code. Altius Quartet: Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano, vioins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello. Navona Records NV6078

One Night Only: “The Many Faces of the Altius Quartet
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, the Gordon Gamm Theater, Dairy Arts Center

Atlantic Jigpipe by Gabriel Mientka
3 Scherzos by Beethoven
Through Fog by J.P. Merz
Bohemian Rhapsody by Freddie Mercury
Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schoenberg

Tickets