2024 Festival: June 8-22!

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Festival in Residence: Ann Arbor (June 21)

June 21 @ 7:30 pm - 9:30 pm

FRI JUNE 21 | 7:30 PM
Kerrytown Concert House

ARTISTS | Hsin-Yun Huang, Jessica Grabbe, The Dolphins Quartet, Trio Gaia

Festival in Residence: Ann Arbor

LASH Quintet in Four Movements
VILLA-LOBOS String Quartet No.5, W263
DVOŘÁK String Quintet No.3, Op.97

*Please contact Kerrytown Concert House at 734-769-2999 or visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com for ticket information.

PROGRAM NOTES | © Ty Bouque 2024

Tonight, we’re exploring the theme of the synthetic—and I do mean like fibers. The Greek etymology means “place together,” but I’m more interested in its technical definition: “the production of chemical compounds by reaction from simpler materials,” and the last bit—“simpler materials”—in particular. Synthesis invokes a change in state, whereby something base is, through interaction with another like substance, transformed into a complex but not altogether pure alloy. Which means that, in the case of musical synthesis, “Western Classical Music” has to come down off its high horse. In all three of the works tonight, “Classical Music” is treated as a simple substance in a chemical reaction with an equally balanced force. It is lifted off the pedestal, set on the ground as music plain and simple, and forced to interact with codes of articulation vastly different from but no less valid than its own. What we’ll hear tonight is a serious distancing effect, where the music of Europe is Othered by an equal and opposite force that reveals, by cohabitation, where it still has room to change. As we’ll see, that exchange can uncover some uncomfortable but necessary truths.

Choosing Han Lash as this year’s composer-in-residence was a strategic move. Lash, perhaps more than any other composer of their generation, writes music with a debt to classical history. Having published a technical book on classical counterpoint after years of teaching analysis at the highest collegiate level, Lash has cemented their work as knowable only in the context of its historical expertise. As Lash says, “originality never arrives via the avoidance of the known”—which is to say that, for Lash at least, “new” music can come only by working through the past.

True to form, the four movement Quintet keeps a steady side-eye towards three long- dead composers (who have all received extensive treatment in this year’s festival). On the surface, Schubert carries the most heft: the instrumentation is lifted straight out of his popular “Trout” Quintet, while the four-movement formal model is an express nod to his last three piano sonatas, each of which contain an extra middle movement. The material itself, however, owes more to Bartók. Lash maneuvers a highly delimited musical isomorphism—meaning the micro-cycle of intervals is mapped onto the governing macro-structure—that betrays a studious attention to the Hungarian’s models of pitch-form relation. And, finally, the Quintet deploys a distinctly Beethovenian model of borrowing, in which early movement material makes surprise returns later on (in our ongoing exploration of the cello sonatas, this has become especially clear).

What Lash is doing—and this is characteristic of their entire of body of work—is treating the very idea of “European Classical Music” as a kind of synthetic fabric with the capacity to be rewoven. Classicism’s modes of organization, instrumentations, behavior patterns, and language are all the same; but a clinical and analytic mind is working to parse out how and why this music operates like it does and then piece it back together again anew. This methodical process allows Lash—and we’ll hear this all over the Quintet—to discover surprising moments of emotion in the tiniest interaction of a note with any other. But these moments, rather than arriving by a kind of subjective expressive investment on the part of the composer, come through the echoes of history. Emotion here is a surgical reconstruction: we hear them as expressive by proxy of our cultural training to do so, and not, as in their historical context, by content. Lash is using composition as a mode of deconstructivist inquiry, as a means of studying—in a controlled, synthetic environment—how the syntactic codes of Classical and Romantic history may be deployed to more rational ends.

Both the Brazilian Villa-Lobos and Czech Dvorák, meanwhile, distance “Western Classical Music” by placing it in alongside other, more localized forms of musical expression. Both works were written at moments of homecoming: Villa-Lobos tackled the fifth quartet within months of his long-awaited return to São Paulo after a sojourn to Paris, and Dvořák wrote the third quintet (having only just finished his “American” twelfth quartet) in the first month of his stay in Spillville, Iowa, where he was finally reunited with his family and a community of Czech speakers after a long period of isolation in New York. As a result, both works—written under significant geographical separation from classical music’s mainland—see Europe from a distance: the strictures of Classical Music are displaced as secondary by an allegiance to the music of their surroundings. The differences in how they do so, however, reveal the possible dark side of synthetic amalgamations.

Villa-Lobos subtitled the fifth quartet Quarteto popular; this is a reference to the Brazilian melodies and rhythms that flood its waters, including, in the final movement, the children’s song O Bastão ou mia gato (“The Stick or a Cat’s Meow”). This synthetic hybrid of classical and folk enacts weird transformations on the medium’s codes of articulation: the fifth quartet is constantly bending time. Where standard classical music loves to economize tempo—rubato only permissible in the final moments of a cadence—music of the South American street plays with whimsy and an uncanny plasticity of time (think of organ-grinders whose music changes speed with each rotation). Villa-Lobos, by nestling his musical birthright into the world of classical music proper, stretches the four-movement form of the classical quartet into a pliable putty that pushes, pulls, and breathes with the elastic freshness of instinctive music-making.

Dvorák, too, borrows liberally from the Indigenous music in his surroundings. During his time in Iowa, the Czech composer became fascinated with the Iroquois People native to the land, and that influence inscribed itself in both the second movement’s percussive ostinato, meant to replicate Indigenous drumming patterns, and the pentatonic melodies that crop up across the work. This borrowing, however, is not equatable with Villa-Lobos. The Brazilian is lifting from his homeland; Dvor ̆ák is a temporary resident of European descent fetishizing an already discriminated American Other whose “simple” musical traditions he feels entitled to take as his own. (And not for the first time; the “American Quartet” was temporarily monikered after a racial slur for Black Americans.)

While imitation is often joked about as being the sincerest form of flattery, tonight’s quintet calls attention to shifting historical attitudes regarding what is inspiration and what is downright stealing. Dvorák, it’s worth acknowledging, never sinks to an overt model of value importation by mimicry—he always weaves his source material through his own language—but the fact that Indigenous music is here at all commemorates a less-than-glorious time when classical music still believed it had a right to take without acknowledgement from anything it considered “lowbrow.” Villa-Lobos, on one hand, demonstrates the potential freedom and revelation that these synthetic reactions can bring about when undertaken in good faith; Dvorák, meanwhile, teeters on the ragged edge of danger that any cultural synthesis risks: something ecologically precious is at risk of misuse and ruin, and though the product is so unabashedly beautiful, we have to face that legacy head-on and learn to enjoy the work’s displays of invention with a bit of critical distance. © Ty Bouque 2024


June 21
7:30 pm - 9:30 pm


Kerrytown Concert House
415 N 4th Ave
Ann Arbor, MI 48104 United States
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Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival
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