The Calder Quartet has been the resident ensemble with the Carlsbad Music Festival for all of the event's eight year history, and it fell to them to conclude the Festival with an early evening performance on Sunday. The program featured three selections: one relatively new, one very new, and one with a metaphorical "wet paint" sign still affixed.
The program opened with the newest quartet by Thomas Adès, "The Four Quarters," which premiered in March of this year in New York and Los Angeles, with the Emerson Quartet. The Calder Quartet has an ongoing working relationship with the composer: they included a beautiful rendering of his "Arcadiana" on their self-released debut.
"The Four Quarters" connects its four movements roughly to times of day:they bear the titles "Nightfalls," "Morning Dew," "Days," and "The Twenty-Fifth Hour." A single listening was not enough to really assess the piece, other than to know that it would be worth hearing again. It comes at its themes from odd angles and is filled with technical minefields. The second movement is almost entirely an exploration of ridiculously speedy pizzicato passages for all four players. The fourth movement, my research tells me, is in the thankless time signature of 25/16. Whatever is really going on, the piece was never dull and often very appealing through its thicket of difficulties. The Calders took it on with confidence and aplomb.
Next on the program was the first section of the Quartet No. 3 ("There Must Be Some Way Out of Here") by Jacob Ter Veldhuis, aka Jacob TV. Composed in 1995, it moves at a pace as leisurely as the Adès was occasionally frantic, with long arching drones sliding hypnotically against one another like a slow swell in mid-ocean. A lovely, moving piece.
After an intermission for equipment setup, the Calder returned to present the world premiere of Jacob Cooper's "Bad Black Bottom Kind," commissioned by the Festival after its selection as the winner of its annual Composer's Competition seeking new work by composers under age 35. The title of the piece derives from a snippet of the lyric to "The Mercy Seat," the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song written from the point of view of the condemned in the electric chair. As that origin suggests, the piece is not inclined to pleasantries. The four instruments are amplified and the sounds of each are separately processed and digitally distorted. To the credit of the Carlsbad audience, only a very few were driven from the room by what was unquestionably the most willfully difficult piece of the weekend.
For the most part all four players saw away at once, each with his own sustained rhythm moving in a small range. There are solo passages for the cello and the viola, also consisting of sustained rhythmic bowing. As the composer himself noted, the piece is loud (although markedly below typical arena rock volumes) and it is rather long.
Listening to "Bad Black Bottom Kind" is rather like having one's head stuck inside a jet turbine for 30 minutes, while the turbine is fed through a saw mill. It is a piece that can certainly be praised as intellectually interesting, but while I certainly do not regret having heard it, it did not leave me wishing either that it had gone on any longer or that it could be experienced again soon.
It did make the 2-hour drive home seem much more restful, though.
Thus ends my experience of the Eighth Annual Carlsbad Music Festival. As I hope these reports have conveyed, it was overall a marvelous and pleasurable event filled with rewarding and exhilirating sounds. Matt McBane and all those who work with him on this project deserve no end of praise and gratitude for pulling it off, and if 2012's programming is remotely on the level of 2011's, I'm hoping to be back down there this time next year.
Photo-illustration by the blogger. More professional documentation of this Festival day can be found in this Facebook gallery.