Movement, grace evident in FLUX

On Friday, the FLUX Quartet presented an adventurous program of contemporary music, including a piece by Ileana Perez-Velazquez, a composer and professor of music at the College. The Quartet’s broad dynamic range, carefully thought-out rendering and intense concentration helped the audience connect with an intellectually difficult work in a meaningful way, making a strong case for modern music.

The first piece on the program was Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 2, written just over 20 years ago. The piece provided a rather intense opening to the program, presenting a broad range of emotional and stylistic moods. The first movement, marked “Moderato,” employed a chordal texture and a very glassy sound. The movement began quietly and gradually grew into a dynamic intensity. The quartet paced the movement extraordinarily well, sustaining the listeners’ attention through a conceptually difficult movement.

This led into the “Agitato” movement, a frenetic, generally forte movement that featured first violin and cello solos against an accompaniment of fast arpeggios. This movement clearly represented a release from the almost painful tension of the first movement. While such a fast-paced and feverish movement could have easily spun out of control in the hands of a lesser ensemble, the quartet pulled it off with élan.

The third movement, marked “Mesto,” applied the same chordal textures as the first, but Schnittke used an interesting juxtaposition of open and overtly dissonant chords to give the movement an unsettled feeling. The fourth and final movement, also marked “Moderato,” was based on much of the same material as the opening movement. It was constructed as an arch form, beginning quietly, growing to an intense peak, and then subsiding, ending incredibly quietly, as the audience almost strained to hear the final chords.

The second piece on the program was written just last year by Williams music professor Ileana Perez-Velazquez, and was entitled “Duendes Alados (Winged Goblins).” Perez-Velazquez wrote in her program notes that “‘Duende’ in Spanish has several meanings, one of them being a spirit who has a certain magical quality. This work relates to an imaginary and unreal world of fantasy. It does not reflect any particular story, but a world created in the imagination of the composer.”

The first movement, “Sobre duendes y esperanza (About Goblins and Hope),” was filled with jazzy and rhythmic polyphonic textures which the quartet played with verve and energy. The second movement, “Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps),” conveyed a softer sound, more distant and unfocused, as the quartet conveyed images of longing and distant memories. In the third movement, “Hojas de marfil (Ivory Leaves),” Perez-Velazquez used trills, pizzicato effects and quick bursts of notes to give the movement a sprightly and mercurial feeling. The final movement, “Danza de los apolillados (Dance of the Night Revelers),” employed rapid interplay between the instruments, ending triumphantly with a low unison chord. The quartet did an excellent job bringing out all of the different colors in the piece, making it a nice antidote to the Schnittke.

After intermission, the quartet began with Ornette Coleman’s 1962 piece “Poets and Writers.” Coleman is a jazz saxophonist, and the jazz influence was evident in the piece’s four parts. The first part began in a loud and rhythmic manner before moving to a smooth violin melody in the violins accompanied by pizzicatos in the cello, and ended abruptly.

The second part began with a playful interplay between the upper three voices and many slides. It moved to a loud dynamic, then slowly dropped in volume, ending softly. The third part began at a frantic pace, with many accented rhythms, and gradually wound down in intensity, dying away into nothing.

The final part featured a fast introduction and a slow middle section, with an exciting coda, ending with several bright chords. With this piece, the quartet further showcased their versatility, showing their agility with jazz idioms.

The final work on the program, John Zorn’s “Cat o’ Nine Tails,” which was written in 1988, was clearly the showpiece of the program. The work began with a prodigious crunch from all four musicians as they dragged their bows near the bridge. After a section that involved rapidly-moving chords and strange pizzicato effects, the quartet suddenly broke into a classic fiddle tune. The viola and cello then played a section with some beautiful, surprisingly tonal chords, before the entire quartet moved into a more jazzy section of the piece. After this, they began moving their bows actually above their left hands to create eerie scratchy effects.

The quartet then entered into a tonal section and proceeded to bang their bows on the stand and cough loudly. Another slower tonal section was followed by the same raucous fiddle tune heard earlier. A dissonant episode was then followed by a quaint arrangement of “Tea for Two,” during which several members of the quartet could not help but smile.

A return to the fiddle tune was then followed by a loud intense section of repeated notes in all four instruments. The viola and cello were then featured in solo sections, and the cellist employed such odd techniques as moving his entire hand up and down the fingerboard, and banging the palm of his hand on the cello. Several of these previous ideas circled around and around, until the piece ended on some quiet chords as unpredictably as it began.

This piece was really a tour de force for the quartet, as they showed an amazing ability to switch between different moods and effects at the drop of a hat. Nowhere did it feel sloppy or unrefined, and, although bizarre, it was a wonderful closer for the program, providing the audience with both humor and fireworks.