The mellifluous sounds of two quartets

Works reviewed: 
Forever Escher (for String Quartet & Saxophone Quartet), Paul Chihara
The Buffalo News
Chautauqua, NY
Jul 17 1999
By: 
Herman Trotter

CHAUTAUQUA - An unusual shared program in the Chautauqua Amphitheater Thursday evening began with the Arcata String Quartet giving a heartfelt and rhapsodic performance of the Dvorak "American" Quartet, followed by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet in an extraordinarily rich and centered view of the Glazunov Saxophone Quartet, a true masterpiece of the genre.

After intermission they joined forces for the world premiere of Paul Chihara's "Forever Escher."

Chihara didn't start out with a tribute to the Dutch artist M. C. Escher in mind. But over the extremely long gestation period it tool in forms in which the composer recognized similarities with Escher's "morphing" transformations. These are not Escher's famous optical illusions such as his endless waterfall, but linear prints in which images gradually change or "morph" into a series of different but related other images.

Chihara's work is in four movements, without the conventional themes, expositions, developments and recapitulations. Instead, for the most part the music progresses by sliding (or morphing?) subtly from one idea to the next. There are occasional abrupt changes in content or mode of expression, but most of it is gradual transformation of forms which are elusive, in that respect reminding one of the exploratory works of Scriabin.

The music is really quite audience friendly, as the enthusiastic reception by the Chautauqua audience confirmed.

There aren't many works for four strings and four saxes in the literature. Of those I've heard I'd say Chihara has best solved the problem of deftly intermingling the eight instruments to provide, in addition to clear, familiar string and reed sounds, judicious mixtures which actually lift the veil on a palette of new, rich and interesting tonal colors and sonorities.

Chihara includes references to Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun," which proved to be among the most subtle of effects. Easier to detect were a couple of blatant references to "Tristan" and an alto sax solo which sounded like it would "morph" into "Laura."

Those looking for conventional forms were rewarded, if their attention span was long enough. The work opens with a single violin on C and at the end comes to rest on that same comfortable tone.

The mellifluous sounds of two quartets
The mellifluous sounds of two quartets