Argus Quartet
Sunday November 13, 2016 3:00pm

Argus Quartet

2016-17 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence

Overview

The Argus Quartet begins their residency at Caramoor with a program curated to entice chamber music lovers. With two Theofanidis pieces: Visions & Miracles, which is almost blindingly light and ecstatic, and the darkly brooding piano quintet, along with compositions from exciting and accomplished 20th century composers, the Argus Quartet invite listeners to broaden their knowledge of the string quartet library. The cutting-edge Argus Quartet collaborated Knox’s Satellites through a commissioning project by the Kronos Quartet devoted to the most contemporary approaches to the string quartet.

Program

Theofanidis  O vis Aeternitatis (O Power of Eternity), for Piano Quintet (performed with David Fung, pianist)
Livengood This Is My Scary Robot Voice
Di Castri Quartet No. 1 (American Premiere)
– Intermission –
Theofanidis  Visions & Miracles
Knox  Satellites, for String Quartet

One extremely promising string quartet is chosen each year to complete a year-long residency at Caramoor. This group lends their time and talents to Caramoor’s Student Strings program in secondary schools with a classroom-based program of concerts, conversations, and performance clinics. The Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence performs at Caramoor throughout their residency, enabling the public to experience these exciting young players in an intimate setting. The Argus is the 17th Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence at Caramoor. They will be visiting schools as music mentors in the fall and spring, and performing concerts at Caramoor in the fall, spring, and summer.

Argus Quartet

Argus Quartet

Jason Issokson, violin
Ari Streisfeld, violin
Clara Kim, viola
Joann Whang, cello

Argus Quartet was formed in the summer of 2013 and is receiving invitations from concert series throughout the United States and abroad. Recent performances include appearances at Carnegie Hall, Laguna Beach Live!, the Hear Now Music Festival, Music Academy of the West, the Birdfoot Festival, and the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam. This season also includes performances with the Brentano Quartet and clarinetist David Shifrin at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Oneppo Chamber Series, and Carnegie Hall. The Argus Quartet will serve as the Ernst Stiefel Quartet in Residence at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts during the 2016-17 season.

Argus is dedicated to reinvigorating the audience-performer relationship through innovative concerts and diverse repertoire – connecting with and building up a community of engaged listeners is at the core of the quartet’s mission. The quartet also believes that today’s ensembles can honor the storied chamber music traditions of our past while forging a new path forward. In that spirit, their repertoire includes not just staples of the chamber music canon but also a large number of pieces by living composers.

Through Chamber Music America and the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, Argus has commissioned a number of new works including quartets by Donald Crockett, composer and GRAMMY nominee Eric Guinivan, and the 2014 Hermitage Prize winner Thomas Kotcheff. Argus served as the Quartet in Residence at New Music on the Point under the guidance of the JACK Quartet, and was also selected as one of three ensembles to perform works from Kronos Quartet’s “Fifty for the Future” commissioning project at Carnegie Hall.

The quartet recently began an appointment as the Yale School of Music’s Fellowship Quartet in Residence and is the first ensemble to be mentored by the Brentano String Quartet in that capacity. In addition to their teaching responsibilities at Yale, Argus has worked with students through residencies and masterclasses at James Madison University, Rockport Music, the Milken School, the Young Musicians Foundation, California State University Long Beach, and the Birdfoot Festival.

 

David Fung

David Fung, piano

Described as “stylish and articulate” in the New York Times and praised as having “superstar qualities” by Le Libre, pianist David Fung is widely recognized for performances that are elegant and refined, yet intensely poetic and uncommonly expressive.  Recent engagements include performances with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the National Orchestra of Belgium, the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, and with the major orchestras in Australia, including the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, among others.

A frequent guest artist of prestigious concert series and festivals throughout the world, Mr. Fung has performed at the Aspen Music Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, Music@Menlo, Hong Kong Arts Festival, Ravinia Festival, and has appeared on the stages of Carnegie Hall, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Queen’s Hall, the Louvre, Belgium’s La Monnaie and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, the Zürich Tonhalle, Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio, the Sydney Opera House, the Beijing Concert Hall, the Tianjin Grand Theater, the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, Hong Kong’s City Hall, and Israel’s Heichal Hatarbut.

Mr. Fung garnered international attention as a winner in two of the “top five” international piano competitions (the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels and the Arthur Rubinstein Piano International Masters Competition in Tel Aviv). In Tel Aviv, he was further distinguished by the Chamber Music and Mozart Prizes, which continue to be two areas that Mr. Fung remains deeply passionate about. Mr. Fung is the first piano graduate of the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles.

About the Music

Christopher Theofanidis / O vis aeternitatis (O Power of Eternity), for Piano Quintet

Christopher Theofanidis is one of the most-watched (and heard!) composers in the United States today. He earned degrees at Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston and has received a number of awards including fellowships that have allowed him to study or work at Tanglewood, at the American Academy in Rome, and elsewhere. He currently teaches both at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and at the Juilliard School in New York City.

His works range from chamber scores to opera and ballet, and the sources of his inspiration run from ancient Greek poets (Sophocles) or the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi to the modern humorist James Thurber. Thurber provided the material for his full-length opera The Thirteen Clocks and Rumi the texts for a choral-orchestral work entitled The Here and Now, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

O vis aeternitatis, commissioned by the Norfolk Festival for Speculum Musicae, is the third work of Theofanidis that has been based in one way or another on music by a remarkable Medieval nun, Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179), who, as her music has become better known in recent decades, has come to be regarded as one of the great composers of the Middle Ages. But she was far more than that: composer, poet, abbess, philosopher and scientist. She has attracted historians of science and religion as well as of music. Her 400 surviving letters comprise one of the largest epistolary documents of that period.

The composer writes about the piece:

“My love of Hildegard’s musical work is connected to both the repetitive quality of shorter motives found buried within her melodic writing (unusual for Medieval chant) and to the sound world of the higher vaulting female vocal writing that she engaged.  I have always felt that her melodies have had an affect (a basic emotive quality) to them, much like the way ancient Greek music or classical Indian music approaches the link between modes and mood, and that much of this quality comes from her distinctive intervallic choices from within the modes. O Vis Aeternitatis translates roughly to ‘O Essence of Eternity,’ and is strongly defined by a rising perfect 5th and minor second.  Much of the melodic writing in my piece takes that contour as its starting point.”

 

Kerrith Livengood b. 1981 / This Is My Scary Robot Voice

Kerrith Livengood is a native of Springfield, Missouri. She has composed a broad range of works in chamber, vocal, and electronic media. During a one-year period from September 2010 to September 2011 she made a point of composing, recording, and releasing online one new composition every day, the kind of self-test that encourages fluency and well as experimentation with new ideas. Her music features unexpected musical forms, lyricism, noise, and humor, including open-form works and improvisation strategies inspired by her adventures with the experimental music and improvisation community in Pittsburgh.

She completed her PhD in composition and music theory at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012 and currently teaches at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

This Is My Scary Robot Voice is laid out in a score presented in timings (by seconds) rather than traditional metrical bars. On the first page, for example, the horizontal space represents periods of 15, 30, and again 15 second units. (The durations change throughout the piece. The score can be viewed on YouTube along with a recorded performance.) Within each time segment, each of the four instruments is presented with one or more musical figures and instructions on how it is to be played. Sometimes a rest may be indicated (and the number of seconds that it is to be observed). The players must figure out (with the help of the composer’s verbal commentary). How these figures (which have no indication of rhythm) are to be turned into actual sound, is explained by the composer in this commentary, which she has provided:

This Is My Scary Robot Voice is the second movement of a string quartet I composed in 2015. In this movement, players incant the rhythms of a number of different sentences, as though speaking them aloud. (This technique is directly inspired by Horatiu Radulescu’s 5th string quartet, “before the universe was born.”) These sentences are all personal mantras – things I tell myself as a small, soft-spoken woman, especially when I’m in a crowd or a group of strangers where often I tend to be very reserved and timid. To overcome my shyness, I force myself to imagine that my voice is very loud and that I am very tall, so that everyone in the room can’t help but hear me and see me. This does help me stand taller and speak louder, but sometimes the results are rather unnatural-sounding; hence the “scary robot voice” that competes throughout this movement with the more conventional sounds. This Is My Scary Robot Voice was premiered by the Argus Quartet at the New Music On the Point Festival, in June 2016.”

Here are the specific sentences that are connected to each of the figures throughout the piece, sometimes simultaneously in all four instruments, though often one instrument incants in an entirely different “mood.”

This is my normal voice
This is my scary robot voice
Everybody can hear me I am a tower thousands of feet tall
Everybody can see me
Everybody for miles can see me
Everything is fine
I am fine

As the piece comes to its conclusion (at about 12 and a half minutes) the final two lines gradually dominate, bringing a peaceful conclusion.

 

Zosha Di Castri / b. 1985 / Quartet No. 1

Zosha di Castri is a Canadian composer and pianist. She took her bachelor’s degree in composition and piano at McGill University, then moved to Paris for further study. She is currently completing her doctorate in composition at Columbia University, where she is working with Fred Lerdahl. Her work goes beyond straightforward concert music to include electronics, installations, and collaborations with video and dance.

Her Quartet No. 1 was commissioned by the Americas Society (New York), the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and the Banff International String Quartet Competition. Every year, one round of the event is the “Canadian competition,” in which a new quartet is commissioned from a Canadian composer. Each participating quartet (there were ten) must prepare a performance of the work, and to do so with a freshness and originality of approach. The competition took place on September 3, 2016.

“Is it possible to write a piece where if it’s heard ten times back to back by ten different groups you hear something new and unique each time?”

In planning the composition, Di Castri had to consider the distinctly unusual fact that the premiere would actually consist of ten performances in succession. She asked, “Is it possible to write a piece where if it’s heard ten times back to back by ten different groups you hear something new and unique each time?” Though the piece is basically an abstract string quartet, she comments that “If anything, maybe the very fast, shifting nature somehow subconsciously reflects my current lifestyle here in New York trying to juggle writing, teaching at Columbia University, and entertaining a one-year-old.” But bursts of energy are only one aspect of the piece.

The quartet employs a vast range of novel and difficult performing techniques, which the performers must not only interpret (usually from a novel notation that takes study on its own). Having done that, they need to work out how all these different techniques actually make a piece of music. They must find a way to play it as if it is entirely familiar.

Before the first (ten!) performances earlier this fall, Di Castri expressed a hope for the way listeners would approach the piece: “I hope that even if the music is abstract that listeners will follow the expressive arc of the music and that it communicates with people in a more individual, less scripted way.”

 

Christopher Theofanidis / b. 1967 / Visions & Miracles

As its title suggests, Visions & Miracles is a vigorously outgoing, joyous score in three movements, composed for string quartet in1997, and often also performed by string orchestra. The opening movement races with leaping gestures, inviting the listener to feel the impulse to dance in an expression of ecstatic joy. The middle movement is quietly visionary, built of gently rising scale fragments that carry the focus ever upward in music constantly imbued with a shimmering quality, dying away at its height. The closing movement is again dynamic, joyfully athletic, ranging in mood from full-out expressions of physicality and quieter, more intimate moments of lively thoughtfulness.

 

Garth Knox / b. 1956 / Satellites, for String Quartet

Irish-born Garth Knox was raised in Scotland and studied viola at the Royal College of Music in London. In 1983 he became a member of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporaine and in 1990 with the Arditti Quartet, an English ensemble that concentrates on contemporary music. He lives in Paris, where he currently plays both viola and the Baroque viola d’amore.

His Satellites is one of a series of fifty works commissioned from fifty composers by the Kronos Quartet as part of its series “Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire.” It is cast in three movements, which, he says, can be performed individually or complete, as here. The first movement, Geostatinary emphasizes various manners of playing pizzicato. Spectral Sunrise employs techniques common in modern “spectral music,” especially harmonics, which create ghostly or other-wordly effects. Dimensions offers “vertical dimensions,” “sideways dimensions,” and “binary dimensions,” producing a variety of new musical effects in a compact eleven minutes or so.

© Steven Ledbetter