The Orion Quartet Debuts a Del Tredici Quintet
On journeying to the core of a newly commissioned work
According to the New York Times, composer David Del Tredici describes writing his first string quartet as a year spent "sitting joylessly at the piano." Then one morning he woke up and said, "It has got to be a pleasure or I won't do this anymore.
"I thought I was going crazy," Del Tredici continued. "I would just jot down everything that came to mind—a kind of musical diary—sometimes only one whole note, or a phrase. I gave up consecutive thinking. I gave up composing at the piano, which completely changed my style, until I could feel an actual cellular change in my surrender to the process. The first composition I put together this way, I Hear an Army [for soprano and string quartet], was like a little mosaic."
In 2002, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio premiered Del Tredici's Grand Trio at the University of Maryland, commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of KLR. The Times' Allan Kozinn described the nearly 40-minute work as "in the tradition (and mostly in the language) of late Romanticism."
Writing in Strings about a 2005 DaPonte String Quartet performance of Del Tredici's String Quartet of 2003, Daniel Felsenfeld noted: "The piece might have been composed by a cartoon Brahms on a psychedelic drug—and this is meant as the highest possible compliment!"
Del Tredici has composed yet another string piece, Magyar Madness, this time for the Orion String Quartet. To witness the commissioning of a new work is a chance to observe a miraculous process of discovery. A chamber ensemble has the opportunity to deliver first performances with a distinctly personal touch. That personal touch—and the miracles, magic, and madness that can accompany the process—makes an enormous difference in an audience's receptivity and enjoyment of the work.
Creating musical miracles is something that the Orion Quartet—violinist brothers Daniel and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy—has been accomplishing for more than 20 years. Acclaimed for excellent teaching, eloquent performances of mainstream repertoire, and championing new music, the hard-working Orions serve as quartet-in-residence at both the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and New York's Mannes College of Music.
As of the current season, they also have been appointed resident quartet at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. Their current season, which includes a retrospective at the 92nd Street Y and highly anticipated Beethoven cycles in New York and Santa Fe (accompanied by the recent first release in a recorded Beethoven cycle on the Koch label), has also featured the first performances of commissions from Del Tredici and Lowell Liebermann. I recently kept track of how rehearsals for the Del Tredici work were going through frequent phone conversations with the participants.
I was delighted to hear that it was the miraculous process all over again.
The Del Tredici commission is one of the most important the Orions have yet had. The composer is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose Nonesuch recordings of large-scale symphonic works based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland were best sellers 20 years ago, captivating the public with their intoxicating romanticism and sumptuous tonal beauty. Yet that music has inexplicably disappeared from the CD catalogs, with the exception of a difficult-to-find Japanese reissue of the Decca label recording of Final Alice (for soprano, folk group, and orchestra). Still, there is certainly a large audience waiting to discover, and rediscover, the glories of the 71-year-old Del Tredici's music, as evidenced by the fact that his choral/orchestral work Paul Revere's Ride earned a 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.
The new commission, the aforementioned 35-minute-long clarinet quintet called Magyar Madness, came to the quartet through clarinetist David Krakauer. The work was funded by a consortium of prestigious presenters called Music Accord. Krakauer and Del Tredici had been talking about a clarinet quintet for some time when Music Accord came on board and arranged for both the funding and a series of first performances during the current season. The world premiere took place at the University of Iowa's Clapp Recital Hall on October 9 with subsequent performances occurring in Raleigh, North Carolina; Ann Arbor, Michigan; the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; and in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
In the case of the three-movement Magyar Madness, as with most new works, the Orions and clarinetist Krakauer had but a few weeks for the "miraculous process" of discovery, work, and evolution to work its magic.
After their first rehearsal with clarinetist Krakauer, during which they played through the piece several times, violist Tenenbom recounted, "We have a good feel for it and know what to focus on: Getting the structure right."
Violinist Todd Phillips is happy that the quartet "managed to get through the whole piece. Audiences are often afraid of new music, but I think they will like it," he said.
Brother Daniel agreed. "If anyone in any audience is apprehensive about hearing new music, they won't be of Magyar Madness. It's mostly romantic music with a few advanced twists from early Schoenberg and Korngold."
The next rehearsal, the first with composer Del Tredici, proved to be important. "It's an interesting puzzle, working with the coposer," Todd said at the time. "Sometimes he or she will say, 'Well, that's not quite what I had in mind.'"
Cellist Eddy elaborates: "Some composers have an extremely clear idea of what they want to hear. In that case, tempos, character, and articulation have already crystallized to an amazing degree."
Eddy is pleased that Del Tredici is satisfied with what the quartet started to do with the work. "Certain things had already come into focus," Eddy says, "but nothing like the coming into focus that happened when we met with Del Tredici. In fact, working with him was particularly helpful not only at the moment, but in how to work on the piece in the future. One thing quickly became clear: He was at all times looking for a natural and satisfying emotional experience. In working with David, his advice how to play, move it along, take something and do it more, followed our instincts in creating a fun experience. As we got a feeling for how David was working with us, we started to ask questions, and even suggest a few ideas of our own. And he would either agree, or say, 'No, this isn't the character I want.'
"I was talking to Krakauer after that first session, remarking how encouraging Del Tredici was," Eddy adds, "and he told me 'David is an exquisite pianist, an accomplished performer.' It's no wonder he knows what makes a great performance."
Krakauer, who performs in a group called Klezmer Madness (from which the new commission derives its name), notes that during the rehearsals he had added some "Hungarianisms, certain little asides and touches," even "a kind of klezmerish touch in the wild cadenzas."
Del Tredici loved it, he says, and had encouraged him to do so.
"It was like a crazy amusement park ride," Krakauer says.
Of course, not everything about a new work's value or effectiveness can be determined during rehearsals. "We can usually get a feel for what the composer intends," Tenenbom says. "But we learn most about a piece of music from actual performances. Right now, we know it's a pretty long work. We won't be able to tell until the first performances, however, whether it works."
The national jury may still be out—performances were scheduled to run through the spring—but as of press time the Orions had convinced at least two respected critics, Joe and Elizabeth Kahn, of its merits. Reviewing the Raleigh concert for their Classical Voice of North Carolina website ( cvnc.org), the Kahns "got" the whole picture that the Orions always hope to convey, beginning with the conscious thought behind the program: "Together the five musicians designed an entire program with an Eastern-European flavor, but with a twist," the reviewers noted. "The two standard pieces on the program, Haydn's String Quartet in C, Op.74/1 and Beethoven's Op. 59/2, contain Hungarian and Russian folk elements, respectively. Programmed with them were two contemporary works featuring Gypsy and Jewish traditions of the region: Magyar Madness, a new clarinet quintet by David Del Tredici and 'K'vakarat,' the third movement from Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov's The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, further modified by Krakauer with the composer's approval."
The Kahns savored the playing, from the "lively performance that highlighted Haydn's characteristic little surprises, humor, and, or course, ethnic flavor" to the "breadth and scope" of the Del Tredici, the "fervor and magic" of the Golijov, and the "new excitement and insight" of the Beethoven.
For Tenenbom, working with living composers is an essential part of the musical experience. "Music," he says, "is a response to emotions from the heart and soul. Playing new music brings a freshness to all the music you play."
Asked about whether the ensemble has liked all the new music it has played, Eddy says: "We may not 'like it,' but as a quartet we have to find a connection [during the performance], to identify with something in our own collective personality. It is something we discuss constantly in rehearsals."
The four quartet members make it clear that this constant discussion is as important in preparing and performing the standard repertoire they have played hundreds of times, as it is in new music. "Particularly," Eddy adds, "if we're not intuitively finding something that's cohesive and convincing."
Todd Phillips takes up the thread: "Whether it's the Beethoven quartets or a new piece, we never feel like we've quite 'gotten it.' We always feel there's more to be done. Sometimes, either after a rehearsal or a performance, we feel defeated because we haven't done a good enough job. The music is so much greater than any one performance. That's what keeps groups together, the fascination and inspiration of having to constantly challenge themselves."
And if, as a result of meeting such challenges, a musician like Krakauer can proclaim, "A major new clarinet quintet has been born," all the better!