Golden Hornet’s String Quartet Smackdown IV
In this “hoot” of a competition, every one of the 16 compositions was a gem, but only one was voted the champion
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Feb. 16, 2018
NCAA basketball's March Madness might be a month away, but fans of classical music got the intense tournament experience in a single night at Golden Hornet's fourth annual String Quartet Smackdown. The Smackdown pits new compositions against one another in a competition that parallels the "Road to the Final Four." Divided into brackets, compositions engaged in head-to-head live musical battles where the winner moved on to the next round until we got to a final showdown – or smackdown – and a tournament winner was crowned.
Two hundred entries from all around the world were whittled down to 16 works, so we began at the round aptly named the Suite 16 (okay, "Sweet"), in which the audience heard a performance of the first minute of two competing compositions. Then the audience voted for their favorite, and the winner moved on to the next round, where compositions got two-minute airings and we voted again, until we were left with two finalists. When the final pair faced off, we heard the entire four-minute piece of music, voted for a winner, and debated the outcome as fans do.
Adding to the tension, votes were tallied on a huge projection screen, so the audience got to see the results tabulated in real time. Sometimes the outcomes were foregone conclusions with one piece outscoring its rival, say, 100 votes to 50. Other times, the voting was so close, the audience gasped as the results swung one way then the other. The final pairing pitted Mexico's Dario Gonzalez Valderrama ("To Find a Voice") against New York's Paul Wiancko ("Lift"). In a raucous, seesawing final tally, Wiancko's piece emerged victorious by a mere three votes.
Did it deserve to win? Well, yes, the listeners gave it their votes (just). This reviewer would argue "Lift" was the safer choice, a deft piece with a soft rock core and comfortable consistency culminating in a pleasing flourish, whereas "To Find a Voice" reveled in moody atmospheric explorations, sections of plaintive bowing interspersed with pulsating plucked passages, weaving the dark and somber with a melodic playfulness in a more emotive, challenging composition. But, hey, sometimes the bow bounces a different direction.
All the compositions offered plenty to consider, and between bouts the audience duly reviewed the merits of each matchup's winner. Co-emcee Peter Stopschinski couldn't help admiring the "saucy dissonances" on aural display; his co-anchor, Golden Hornet Artistic Director Graham Reynolds, banged on his Chinese gong to bring each minutes-long performance to a stop. The entire evening was, as one longtime Smackdown fan called it, "a hoot."
The 16 compositions were lovingly performed by local string quartet invoke: violinists Nick Montopoli and Zachariah Matteson, violist Karl Mitze, and cellist Geoff Manyin. Considering the quartet had to learn 64 minutes of music of which they only performed 30, theirs was a herculean task and one they conquered with aplomb. Thankfully, invoke will make full recordings of all 16 finalists, every one a gem, but only one the 2018 champion.
String Quartet Smackdown IVAlamo Drafthouse South Lamar