It’s hard to place the popular string quartet ETHEL on the continuum from classical to modern to “post-classical.” Much of what they play is certainly contemporary, but the program Wednesday night at Hannaford Hall, “Present Beauty,” leaned more toward new age. There was considerable variety but eventually the driving, repetitive “chugging” (to use Steve Reich’s term) made one want to move out of the eternal now into the future, or the past.
That said, the performances were exceedingly well done, realizing the composer’s intent in every aspect, with virtuosity, vivacity and good humor. I would like to hear what the quartet could do with main-stream modern music, Bartok, for example, or Lutoslawski.
The featured work, a suite from Philip Glass’ score for “The Hours,” showed how versatile the technique of pattern repetition can be in the hands of a master. The musical characterizations were so strong that they conjured up actual scenes, from kitchen work to drowning.
The first item on the program, Mark Stewart’s “To Whom It May Concern: Thank You” (his grandmother’s all-purpose grace), was a clever example of life imitating technology. A decrescendo of reverberation was applied to each note of a strictly tonal melody, with a surprisingly eerie but pleasant effect.
It was followed by Terry Riley’s “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector,” in which the performers have the option of playing “modules” of the score in any order they choose. It was lively and not too dissonant, but the effort to fill every bar with sound reminded me of square-dance fiddling, or was it Vivaldi?
The most ferocious work of the evening was “Early that summer,” by Julia Wolfe, inspired by a book of American history in which descriptions of earth-shaking events opened with such innocuous phrases. The piece starts mildly, but with dire flashes of lightning, and builds to a cataclysmic climax, after which it fades rapidly away.
After “Early that summer” came an interval of calm amid the storm, “wed” by David Lang, dedicated to a friend of the composer’s wife who married on her deathbed.
Sad and calm, the piece interweaves long melodic phrases, each having minimal development, resulting in a shimmering northern-lights veil appropriate to the subject.
The final composition, “String Quartet No. 2: The Flag Project” by Huang Ruo, was also the most exotic. Each of its three movements depicts a setting and motion of Tibetan prayer flags.
The piece is scored for string quartet and Tibetan finger cymbals, which are either rung or played on with the bow. The effect is magical, as is the imitation by the cello of a Tibetan bass viol, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of “ecstatic awareness.”
Like the Glass vignettes, the final movement of the quartet makes effective use of pattern repetition to depict a scene, in this case of monks chanting.
An enthusiastic audience gave ETHEL a long standing ovation.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: