In its four short years of existence, the Los Angeles-based Argus Quartet, this season’s Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence, has performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall and the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam to the Hear Now Music Festival in Los Angeles and New Orleans’ Birdfoot Festival. As part of their residency at Caramoor, in addition to their public performances throughout the year, Argus serves as music mentors, lending their time and talents to Caramoor’s Student Strings program in secondary schools with a classroom-based program of concerts, conversations, and performance clinics.Their varied program today contains masterworks by two prolific proponents of the string quartet—Haydn and Beethoven—and a world premiere by Donald Crockett, commissioned by Caramoor specifically for the Argus Quartet as part of our dedication to building “A String Quartet Library for the 21st Century.”
“They played with supreme melodic control and total authority.” – Calgary Herald
Haydn String Quartet in C major, Op. 74 No. 1 Crockett String Quartet No. 4, Traveling Symphony (World Premiere Commissioned by Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts) Beethoven String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132
“This new string quartet, my fourth, is written especially for the young and highly talented Argus Quartet, and with their style, sound and sense of drama very much in mind. It is a narrative piece, essentially a compact opera (mostly) without words, set in a post-civilization era and based loosely on recent end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it works of literary fiction. And Shakespeare. At times somber and agitated in tone, this ‘opera’ for string quartet is nonetheless ultimately optimistic, a collection of impressions and recollections about finding a way forward in a darkening landscape.” – Donald Crockett
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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.
Argus Quartet believes that today’s ensembles can honor the storied chamber music traditions of our past while forging a new path forward.
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.
FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
String Quartet in C Major, Op. 74, No. 1 (Hob. III:72)
About the Composer
When Haydn came to write the quartets of Opus 76, starting perhaps as early as 1797 and finishing them in 1799, he was sixty-seven, nearing the end of his career, a career marked at the last by international renown and a voluminous output of music that constantly opened new paths. His earliest string quartets had been written for ensembles that played them privately, at home, for the enjoyment largely of the performers themselves and perhaps a handful of auditors. They were often intimate and introspective. But in the 1790s he became more aware of the presence of a paying concert audience that would come to hear professional musicians perform a work that was intricate and challenging beyond the powers of most amateurs and that was addressed particularly to listeners, not players. His work begins to make larger gestures, to pursue daring harmonic courses, to be filled with delicious humorous morsels. His audiences remained astonished that he seemed as fresh as ever, that there was no sign of his being written-out.
About the Work
Speaking of the entire Opus 76 set of six quartets, Charles Burney, one of the most knowledgeable musical authorities of the century, declared them to be “full of invention, fire, good taste, and new effects.” And they bore a freshness that one would expect to have come not from “one of highly cultivated talents, who had expended none of his fire before” rather than from a composer of advanced age who had written dozens and dozens of favorite pieces. And, indeed, the fifth quartet of the Opus 76 set offers wonderful surprises – especially to audiences of Haydn’s day, who were not given a listing of movements for the program, so they were delightedly surprised at every departure from convention.
A Deeper Listen
Variation form most often occurs in slow movements in Haydn’s day, occasionally in finales. Here he chooses to open the quartet with what seems at first as if it will be a simple theme-and-variations based on a lolling 6/8 melody. Once the variations begin their delicate traceries, Haydn’s listeners might have thought they could sit back and relax, confident that no great surprises were in store. Even the shift to the minor mode, with the cello taking the lead and the other instruments offering a contrapuntal response, is perfectly normal—until it leads to dramatically full textures and striking changes of key. A return to the home key and the original theme—further decorated— signals a return, but Haydn’s ear required something special to balance the dramatic outburst that had preceded it. This turns out to be a sudden Allegro with the main tune tossed back and forth in dialogue while the harmony wittily pounds away at the home key, as if to say, “There was an unexpected detour, but here is where we will stay.”
Only when we come to the second movement do we realize why Haydn had composed so brief and (even with its harmonic surprises) relatively simple an opening movement. The Largo is by far the longest movement in the quartet—almost as long as the other three combined—and its emotional center of gravity. Haydn characterizes is as “songful and sad” (cantabile e mesto). The hymn-like character of the theme over sustained or gently pulsing harmonies seems so direct that we almost overlook the very surprising choice of key; F-sharp major, which counterbalances the harmonies of the first movement in the opposite direction. But once the movement is underway, it is impossible ignore the searching harmonies of the middle section, and the sweetness of the return home when the hymn-like theme comes back.
The remaining two movements serve as foils to the Largo. Haydn anticipates Beethoven in speeding up the courtly Menuetto to an Allegro tempo (which would be impossible on the dance floor but adds wonderful verve to the quartet). The Trio moves to the minor mode, just as middle section of the opening movement had done.
The last movement is one of Haydn’s most delicious jokes. It opens with an idea that, in the abstract, is a close, designed to end a musical paragraph. But he uses it again and again to suggest cheerfully confusing beginnings and endings until the moment when, after its brief bubbling existence, it really does bring the proceedings to a sunny end.
– Steven Ledbetter
String Quartet No. 4 Traveling Symphony
String Quartet No. 4 Traveling Symphony, commissioned by Caramoor for the Argus Quartet, is in no small part a response to this quartet’s sense of adventure and expressive emotional range. When the project came in I had been reading several recent end-of-civilization novels including The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. These two books, while quite dark, are full of the resilience of the human spirit. (In both, the agent of catastrophe is a flu pandemic rather than nuclear Armageddon, making an eventual rebirth of civilization seem possible, however difficult.)
The quartet unfolds in a single movement of about eighteen minutes, loosely based on plot lines in both novels. There is a Traveling Symphony in Station Eleven, an assortment of musicians and actors who travel the countryside for decades playing symphonies, jazz and orchestral arrangements of popular music alongside performances of Shakespeare plays, King Lear prominent among them. This is, of course, highly reminiscent of medieval troupes traveling the countryside in plague-ridden times. The instrumentation of the Symphony is ad hoc and varied – ‘third cello, second horn, sixth guitar…’
In this theatrical and narrative piece, I ask the quartet to do some singing as well as ‘stage whispering’ fragments from King Lear and bits of text derived from Station Eleven. I imagine the musicians embodying the Traveling Symphony – orchestra, theater company, itinerant news service, keepers of the flame of culture. Starting near the beginning of the quartet you will at times hear text fragments interpreted by the instruments closely mimicking the cadence of spoken phrases.
The form of the piece, a collection of scenes, follows this arc: (i) still, mournful music; (ii) skittery, nervous traveling music; (iii) still, mournful music with intense melodic fragments; (iv) the Traveling Symphony’s overture to a Shakespeare play (quasi- Elizabethan music accompanied by guitars); (v) ‘telling the news’ of catastrophe, led by the cello; (vi) skittery traveling music returns; (vii) a tombeau for the people of the world; (viii) the Traveling Symphony overture returns; (ix) lighting the power grid.
String Quartet No. 4 Traveling Symphony was commissioned by Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts as Vol. 18 of Caramoor’s Comissioning project: A String Quartet Library for the 21st Century.
– Donald Crockett
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132
About the Composer
Beethoven returned to the medium of the string quartet in 1824, following a break of some dozen years, after he had completed his Ninth Symphony, the last of the thirty-two piano sonatas, and the Missa Solemnis. The five late string quartets thus became Beethoven’s final musical testament, containing some of the most personal music he ever wrote. For most of the rest of the century, response to these works was either patronizing (the assumption being that they were so “odd” simply because Beethoven’s deafness caused him to miscalculate the musical effect) or downright hostile (one French composer referred to them as “the muddy source from which has flowed all the bad music of the last halfcentury”). This is ironic, because Beethoven’s contemporaries heard them without undue alarm.
Yet even as late as the 1880s, more than half a century after Beethoven’s death, a Boston reviewer reported a performance of one of them and wondered in print whether it was the performers or the audience who were more confused by the piece. Still, these quartets had an extraordinary influence on some composers, among them Wagner, Elgar, Schoenberg, and Bartok. Eventually the mastery inherent in this music became widely recognized by listeners as well.
About the Work
Beethoven began working on the A-minor quartet while still finishing up its immediate predecessor, Op. 127. His next three works, published as Op. 130, 131, and 132 (though the numbers do not reflect order of composition) are in many respects the most unusual of the entire series, and there has been a tendency to view them as a trilogy, though the composer himself never considered them so. Still, it is clear that during the period of composition he was intensely interested in formal contrapuntal devices, most obviously revealed in the Grosse Fuge conceived as the finale of Op. 130 and the first-movement fugue of Op. 131.
A Deeper Listen
The A-minor quartet, though it lacks a formal fugue, exploits contrapuntal devices especially in the working-out of the basic thematic kernel that appears in the cello at the outset. This motive (heard both right-side-up and upside-down) seems at first to be simply introductory; once the Allegro gets underway, we may be prepared to forget it. In fact, the Allegro theme is conceived as a counterpoint to the Assai sostenuto of the opening measures, and Beethoven never lets us forget this fact as he reinterprets these materials in various ways throughout the movement.
After the grim concentration of the opening movement, Beethoven planned a dance in Menuetto rhythm, Allegro ma non tanto, which also grows out of the contrapuntal combination of ideas (presented together by the two violins after four measures in which all the players offer one of the ideas in unison). The gloomy foreboding is dispelled in a Trio of rustic charm, with bagpipe drones and folk-like tunes, but the return to the first part brings with it a somber, unsmiling countenance.
What follows is one of the most extraordinary movements in all Beethoven—simultaneously an example of his command of musical expression and a practical response to musical antiquarianism. The heading, Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (“Sacred song of thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian mode”), highlights the retrospective element: Beethoven had studied the ancient modes of ecclesiastical plainsong (though he had to remind himself on the original manuscript, since force of habit dies hard, that the Lydian mode involves the scale of F with B natural instead of B flat), and he employed that knowledge here, not to recall the past but rather to generate a music of utter timelessness. The hymn appears three times, with variations, alternating with a somewhat faster section in D major, marked Neue Kraft fühlend (“Feeling renewed strength”), which is itself a kind of variation of an unstated theme, ripe with elaborate ornamental scoring. The last return to the hymn, marked Mit innigster Empfindung (“With the most intimate feeling”) generates a grand climax that is simultaneously rich and austere.
Beethoven did not want to proceed directly from the spiritual elevation of the Heiliger Dankgesang to the emotions of a minorkey finale; he chose instead to bring in the sharpest contrast in the form of a march movement (the mundane following the ethereal) in A major. The march itself, which is never completed, links to the finale Allegro appassionato by means of an astonishing, pathetic instrumental recitative at the point where we expect a Trio. The final movement is built from material originally conceived for the Ninth Symphony but not used there. Here it becomes a rondo of great breadth and pathos, avoiding all the cute tricks that make the rondo normally a light-hearted romp. Just before the final Presto, the first violin in top register reiterates the F-E semitone that comprised half the opening motto of the first movement, while the cello (in its tense high register) brings in the rondo theme. Even the turn to A major, for the coda, fails to brighten the taut nervousness of this powerful work.