November 14, 2018
It is paradoxical – or perhaps not – that the ugliest and most horrific experiences in life can inspire transcendent, healing beauty.
A remarkable pairing of music with the spoken word made for a solemn, sometimes harrowing Veteran’s Day commemoration, Nov. 11 in Temple Beth-El, thanks to the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.
The program, titled “Lyric in the Time of War,” is a collaboration between the distinguished American String Quartet and two writers – Tom Sleigh, a copiously honored poet who has alsoworked as a journalist in areas of violent conflict around the world; and Phil Klay, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran whose collection of short stories dealing with life in the Marines, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. The music, most of a contemplative, mournful or violent character, was interspersed with readings by the two writers of excerpts from their work.
The readings were tough to hear. Mr. Klay spoke of collecting the remains of the dead, and he related in meticulous detail the complex choreography by which nine artillerymen aim and fire at human targets miles away. And one cannot listen to Mr. Sleigh’s “Lamentation on Ur,” from the 2003 collection Far Side of the Earth, without being changed. It begins: Like molten bronze and iron shed blood pools. Our country’s dead melt into the earth as grease melts in the sun, men whose helmets now lie scattered, men annihilated
by the double-bladed axe.
Both of the major musical works on the program, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8, Op. 107 (1960) and Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet, Op.95 (1810), are tightly compressed masterpieces from periods when their creators were suffering intense emotional distress and contemplating suicide. (The Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 of 1959, closely related to the String Quartet No. 8, was the centerpiece of the same weekend’s concerts by the San Antonio Symphony, with soloist Lynn Harrell, conducted by Sebasian Lang-Lessing.) Brief works provided punctuation – a quartet arrangement of the Prelude in F Minor from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Marcia section from the second movement of Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 6, and the Adagio from Samuel Barber’s String Quartet.
The American String Quartet was formed in 1974 by students at the Juilliard School. Of the founding members, only violinist Laurie Carney remains with the troupe. Her colleagues are Peter Winograd (violin), Daniel Avshalomov (viola); and Wolfram Kessel (cello).
Their performances were, for the most part, probing, carefully considered and attentive to stylistic distinctions. Only the Bartok excerpt fell short of the mark: The march sounded a little too amiable, and the distraught central section wanted more grit and wildness.
But the musicians were masterful in the Bach, played with minimal vibrato but supple shaping of dynamics and tempo. They brought emotional restraint to the slow opening movement of the Shostakovich, giving it a feeling of resignation rather than despondency. The second movement was taken at a breakneck clip; here the players allowed expressive imperatives to sometimes overrule the exceptional beauty of their sound.
The brusque opening of the Beethoven quartet, coming immediately after Mr. Klay’s reading about the artilleryman, was given an extra edge of agitation that seemed to suggest a troubled mental state beneath the gunner’s calm, controlled surface. Near the middle of the second movement, the halo of pianissimo chords high above the cello’s descending scale took on a ghostly chill.
Their view of Barber’s elegiacal Adagio cast a consoling light on the (possibly) ambiguous final line of Mr. Sleigh’s “Before Rain,” a litany of tragic desolation that ends:
Forget all this, says Earth to the stars.
American String Quartet, Tom Sleigh, Phil Klay
‘. . . men whose helmets now lie scattered’
The members of the American String Quartet are (clockwise from top left) Peter Winograd, violin; Daniel Avshalomov, viola; Wolfram Koessel, cello; and Laurie Carney, violin.
Photo: Peter Schaaf