Daed(alus)head Henry Litwhiler makes it to the Quartet’s (inner) circle. Something about “a setting that breaks down the barriers between audience and performers” was too good pass up.
The Daedalus Quartet is well-regarded in musical circles and as close to famous as a quartet is likely to get these days, so it was surprising to see their name attached to an ad encouraging the audience to come equipped with “a blanket, yoga mat, or pillow.”
Maybe I have a particular distaste for anything remotely gimmicky—a category into which I’d heap pretty much any effort to fundamentally change the relationship “between audience and performers” in a classical setting—or maybe I place too much stock in sadism’s ability to turn a performance from merely beautiful to fully engaging. Whatever the case, I felt the same sort of apprehension that I usually reserve for performances at the Miller Theatre.
I waltzed into the Diana Performance Oval a few minutes late, and was a tad thrown by the scene before me. The chairs were arranged in a full circle around the Quartet, the lights were dimmed, and half the audience seemed preoccupied with their cellphones even as the first piece was being introduced. I was initially disappointed to find only about half the seats filled, but the smaller crowd certainly made for a more intimate setting.
The lights finally dimmed further and, without so much as the standard “Please turn off your pagers” recording, the Quartet dove into contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s Officium Breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky, op. 28 (Spotify). Rich and unobtrusive, the piece would no doubt offer quite a lot to a student of Kurtág’s work, which is to say that I’m left grasping at its aesthetics and performance.
The Quartet did well in picking a piece as varied as Kurtág’s, as it gave the performers an opportunity to showcase the sheer range of their virtuosity. They were able to move the audience effortlessly from a relatively traditional opening to a more esoteric core and then back out again, all the while demonstrating their solemn technical prowess. The second piece, Beethoven’s well-known Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 (Spotify), gave the Quartet an opportunity to reach still greater virtuosity, all while building on the compelling irony of such formal music in so relaxed a setting.
There was something else going on, though. I’m tempted to call it a distraction, but can it really be a distraction which advances the task at hand? No, it was more like seasoning. See, as the quartet pressed through the fifteen movements of Kurtág’s piece, I became more and more aware of the constant chatter in the room outside the auditorium, of the periodic chiming of the elevators, of the audience’s coughs and snorts. What struck me as bizarre, though, was that I didn’t mind at all.
The violins would belt out abstract vibrato, the door would slam, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to be indignant. Maybe I’d had a good day, maybe I was given some divine inspiration to be charitable to my fellow man, or maybe, just maybe, the Quartet was accomplishing its goal. Maybe the unpretentious demeanor of the performance as a whole, with its talk of pillows and breaking down barriers, really primed me to accept the sundry encroachments of audience and outsiders alike.
The performance itself was excellent; in concert with its environment, it bordered on the sublime.
DQ via DQ