by Anthony Tommasini
Hearing works by many of today’s American baby-booer composers, you’d think they’d all been raised in Arnold Schoenberg’s Austria rather than Steven Spielberg’s suburbia. Jeffrey Stadelman’s “Steps,” which received its premiere by the Boston Composers String Quartet at Jordan Hall on Monday, is a case in point. This is music that combines a sort of television-generation consciousness – all fragmented and quick cut – with the most ponderous academicism. (Stadelman is a PhD candidate in composition at Harvard). “Steps” is a series of some two dozen short musical segments, each of which presents only one or two ideas. The musical chunks seemed strung together with no discernible connective quality other than the high-minded tone of the whole enterprise. My momentary interest in a burly Bartokian flicker or a brooding Bergian lyrical line would quickly disappear as i calculated how many more of these over-wrought snippets we had vet to get through. Three, four, six of them at most might have made a successful set of miniatures.
In Chad Crumm’s program note for his 1989 string quartet, also receiving its premiere Monday, he described the first movement as an “inward searching for answers I have not found,” which seemed dubious, and the second movement as combining music and “sound one associates with sporting events, fraternity glee clubs, airport lounges or bizarre commercialism,” which perhaps promised some fun. Alas, the piece turned out to be a stiff homage to Ives’ “sound” collage pieces. The humor – mixing snippets of “America the Beautiful” with “Strangers in the Night” and such into a haze of harmony – was pretty forced.
The musical content Marti Epstein’s 1987 “blue lines” held was clear as could be. And that was the problem. This short sound piece – a succession of near inaudible shimmers, high-pitched pianissimo whinings, carefully crafter splatters of harmonics, melancholic tunes bits – was dedicated to the memory of a deceased friend and is no doubt sincerely felt. But this is music that despite it’s outer mystery holds no inner secrets.
Beth Denisch’s “Phantasmagoria” (1989), on the other hand, brimmed with personality and drive. Its actual materials might have seemed fresher and less in debt to Berg and Bartok if it had been heard with different companion pieces than it was here. But the ruminative lyricism, the exhilarating march-like drive of the “Grand Dance” movement, and the bracing and exultantly ugly high-pitched frenzy of its finale were striking.
However unfair to the junior composers, it was a great idea to conclude this program with Leon Kirchner’s magnificent 1959 String Quartet No. 2, written when the composer was 39 and clearly a master. Kirchner, a student of Schoenberg, had a true claim to his tradition. Yet he fashioned a style that was taut, tough and American. The three movements present cram-packed ideas that rush past you breathlessly, but in a structure as concise and as easy to follow as a good story. The harmonies are atonalish and ornery yet lean and translucent. THe performance was thrillingl the performances of the new works seemed no less authoritative. In less than five years, the musical excellence of the Boston Composers String Quartet – violinists Clayton Hoener and James Cooke, violist Scott Woolweaver and cellist Andrew Mark – has become something you can count on.