Last night Friction Quartet returned to give another recital program in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel continue to share first violin duties, and they were joined by violist Taija Warbelow and cellist Doug Machiz. When they first came to Old First in January of 2014, they prepared a program of three West Coast premieres, all of which had just received their world premiere performances by Friction in New York. This time there were only two premieres, both in the first half of the program; but San Francisco had the world premiere honors. One of these, a suite entitled The California Crest: a north-bound mental map by Max Stoffregen, was composed on a Friction Quartet commission. The other was Eric Tran’s first string quartet, which was complemented after the intermission by the first composition that John Adams called a string quartet. This latter quartet was the first piece that Friction played in public, and I first wrote about it when they were still students performing it at Hot Air Festival 2012.
Adams wrote this quartet for the St. Lawrence Quartet after listening to them give a concert performance of a string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven. Last night Harriel introduced the piece as Adams’ entry into the string quartet canon; and, when it was introduced at Hot Air, there were also suggestions that Adams had been influenced by Maurice Ravel (whose quartet was another early entry in the Friction repertoire). On this particular occasion, however, I found myself thinking of another possible source of influence.
When we look at the Adams canon, we find several compositions that all seem to involved coming to grips, one way or another, with the work of Arnold Schoenberg. “Harmonielehre” shares its title with the German title of Schoenberg’s textbook about tonal harmony, first published in 1911 when he was just beginning his move away from tonality. Recently, the San Francisco Symphony gave its first performance of Adams’ chamber symphony, which was a by-product of his efforts to learn to conduct Schoenberg’s Opus 9, that composer’s first chamber symphony. Then, one of Adams’ other ventures with the St. Lawrence Quartet was “Absolute Jest,” which took the form of a concerto for string quartet and orchestra (which happens to be rich with Beethoven quotes), a form that Schoenberg had also composed, drawing upon George Frideric Handel, rather than Beethoven.
This strikes me as more than a legacy of coincidences. Thus, while my initial reaction to Adams’ quartet was that it was another one of the composers “rides on a fast machine,” this time the almost mechanistic intensity of the fast-paced tempo triggered memories of the intense churning in the first movement of Schoenberg’s first string quartet. (Schoenberg’s quartet consists of four movements played without interruption. Adams’ has two movements, each of which has its own subdivisions.) If Adams was not thinking about Schoenberg explicitly while working on this piece, he may have been thinking about Schoenberg thinking about Beethoven.
Tran’s first venture into this genre, on the other hand, was very much the composer’s own logic and rhetoric. The former involved the use of motivic building blocks that were reworked into different settings in each of the four movements. The latter featured a tendency to thwart the usual expectations, as with his decision to begin the opening Toccata movement with an uncharacteristically poignant introduction. In preparing a piece for its “first contact,” Tran displayed a fascinating knack for alternating the unexpected with conventions that help orient the listener. Should he decide that this quartet with be the first of a set, then he is probably on to a good plan.
Stoffregen’s suite, on the other hand, is basically a tone poem highlighting four of the sites along the Pacific Crest Trail, which the composer hiked between May 1 and September 5 of 2014. Those sites were San Jacinto Peak, Kelso Canyon, Owens Lake, and the Cinder Cone near Lassen Peak. (Stoffregen provided his own notes for the program book.) Since I am not a hiker (let alone an ambitious one), I did not share Stoffregen’s knowledge of any of these specific locations. However, I can say the same about the many images that Claude Debussy evoked through his music; and that matter never detracted from my listening pleasure. In this case, however, I was often puzzled as to just what were the features of a particular site that Stoffregen was trying to express through his music; and it may be that this is the sort of piece that requires further listening by those unfamiliar with the motivating content before they can “get with the program.”