Miró Quartet

Local Arts Reviews

Miró Quartet

Bates Recital Hall, Feb. 15

It was as if the Miró Quartet had awoken at the devil's garage sale, surrounded by mics, speakers, percussion instruments, and a black-draped table set with wine glasses for a performance of George Crumb's 1970 novelty, Dark Angels. This setting may contribute more to form than Crumb's music. What are the glasses for? Where is that sound coming from? When will they hit the gong? When will they stop hitting the gong?

Dark Angels is a tour de force for the Miró Quartet's world-class strengths: microscopic detailing, clairvoyant ensemble, and a color palette. The Sixties were a time of experimentation. Folks rubbed their bow sticks against everything. Jimmy Page bowed his bass guitar with the Yardbirds in '66. Here players bow gongs, wineglasses, and parts of their instruments' anatomies that would have made Paganini blush. But the 34-year-old piece offers a kick more like snacking through a box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans than encountering Beethoven's Seventh or Cage's Indeterminacy.

Haydn, Mahler, and Bartok used effects as garnishes. Crumb tries to structure a piece out of them, aided by suggestive titles such as "Night of Electric Insects" and "Ancient Voices" – like ghost stories that dispose you to worry about night sounds. Without its effects, Bartok's Fourth Quartet holds up well, but does Dark Angels? Find the answer in the denouement of any Scooby-Doo episode.

The form is simplistic – the standard ABA over which the Ramones, Homer's Odyssey, The Love Boat, and seventh-grade book reports commune. At heart, it's a buffet of effects, some unearthly and enchanting (Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" melody bowed on the wrong end of the strings) and some cheap (a gong loses authority onstage the moment it is struck).

The formal laxity covers the quartet's inconsistency in mounting a convincing musical argument into an integrated form, a shortcoming in their performance of Charles Ives' String Quartet No. 1, "From the Salvation Army" – a conventionally tonal student work that took to heart Dvorak's advice about using music from our national experience. Ives' contemporaries responded by making idylls out of Native Americans' music; Ives courageously explored his bond with homely hymn tunes. That's what is radical about this quartet.

For a composer who admired the exuberant tone-deaf stone mason in his church more than the trained soprano, the Miró Quartet's approach was too Episcopal. Lavish tone and painstakingly thought-out phrasing smoothed down the fragmented melodies into effacement (although I liked a particularly abrupt accelerando in the second movement).

The last movement showed more bite. Ives reveals snatches of "Stand Up for Jesus" but saves the full tune for a finale we can all lose ourselves in. The Miró made sense of it, but instead of revival zeal, gave us the sound of a meticulously rehearsed, paid choir – no catharsis. As Ives would say, "Nice."

That flawless ensemble better served Beethoven's String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3, showing uncanny evenness and surgical precision to expose the inner voices and bring full effect to the slightest harmonic catching points. They played with nerves so steady that had they been in a bathtub, they wouldn't have raised a ripple.

Here, as in everything they play, I was intoxicated by their tone, but I suspect they were, too, and that's a hard thing to overcome.

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Miró Quartet, George Crumb, Dark Angels, Charles Ives, String Quartet No. 1, "From the Salvation Army", Beethoven, String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3

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