The Magical Musicians

New Bwogger Jacob Snyder dives into the greatly unappreciated world of on campus string performances and finds a solid gem.

The artistically-inclined Columbia student would be making a dire mistake to ignore all that our own Miller Theater has to offer. From Christmas music of the English Renaissance to jazz piano, from Euripides to Steve Reich—these are only a few of the events sponsored last year by that theater around the corner.

Students might object that ticket prices tend to stand in the way of attendance, but even the most frugal Columbian could find no excuse to miss out on Miller’s pop-up concert series. Since 2012, the theater has put on intimate showcases of young talent performing for an audience seated onstage with them. These pop-ups are free events, and audiences are invited to have a drink and mingle with such refreshing musicians and composers after the show.

On Tuesday, the Argus Quartet made their Miller Theater debut to kick off the 2017-2018 season in the first pop-up concert of the year. The string quartet has been selected as Graduate Quartet in Residence at Julliard, and their technical prowess and supreme instrumental control was fully clear throughout the four pieces they played Tuesday evening. The first composition, called For David Lang, began frantically and explosively, with violist Dana Kelley stop-starting a melody with almost mathematical precision. Proving to be a crowd favorite, the third piece, Peculiar Strokes, was introduced by violinist Jason Issokson as “a set of miniatures,” and while the piece consisted of fun technique demonstrations, it appeared to require equally exact timing and coordination.

The pop-up concert format, like black box theater, allows for closer connection with the performers, and Executive Director of Miller Theater Melissa Smey is fully conscious of this advantage, omitting written programs from the events for fear of creating a “barrier between the audience and performers.” If such a barrier somehow remained, it was assuredly broken down by the Argus Quartet themselves. This was in many ways a tactile experience, emphasizing the variety of textures or timbres made possible by such creative composing and musicianship. Even in the first few minutes of the performance, the bow of Cellist Joann Whang had already frayed from such scraping abuse. One portion of the final piece (by Garth Knox) sounded almost like banjo music, the composition culminating with gorgeous harmonies and the quartet violently swinging their bows in the air to produce a whooshing sound, all to the audience’s delight. Half the time, the performance seemed to consist of as much dance as it did music.

It felt criminal to have walked out of the pop-up concert without having spent a cent—these are spectacularly creative, well-trained, and talented musicians playing pieces by contemporary composers who inspire and provoke. It is the strong opinion of this reviewer that any Columbia student—not just those with interest or background in classical music or jazz—can benefit considerably from even periodically taking advantage of all that Miller Theater has to offer this year. The Theater is a resource ignored at a cost.

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