SCRUTINY | Cecilia String Quartet Put Women On Equal Footing At 21C

By Joshua Denenberg on May 26, 2017

Cecilia String Quartet Photo Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Cecilia String Quartet shine a spotlight on female composers at the 21C Festival. (Photo Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

21C Festival. Cecilia String Quartet at Mazzoleni Concert Hall. Thursday, May 25.

Engineered by group cellist Rachel Desoer, her and the quartet deserve amenable praise for, as she puts it, “looking for female representation in the genre and encouraging others to do so as well.” In the show’s preview video, participating composer Emilie LeBel comments that even in 2017, female composers are still not on equal footing to their male peers — a continuing disappointment in the new music scene.

The first piece, Katarina Ćurčin String Quartet No. 3, is a one-movement work that encompasses several discrete sections. All of them utilize her Serbian heritage, borrowing a folk melody about a young girl who is kept inside because of her beauty. This work is then a journey of said girl trying to escape her captivity, emphasized most notably in the middle section which is driving, rhythmic, and perhaps even a bit jaunty with a Bartokian edge. Making use of percussive and guitar like playing give a further sense of drama to the piece.

The second, Kati Agócs’ Tantric Variations, is a far more verbose and eclectic composition, especially when contrasted by the tidy form of the prior work. While there is a central theme and melodic idea that pushes the music forward, the accompanying styles and interpretations range from classical simplicity to dense and complex counterpoint to scratch tones and texture. Most of this melody is based upon a single note turn, and Agóc explores a dizzy array of emotions and compositional approaches to that singular idea. Some moments are perfectly lucid with a V-I tonality, other moments are positively manic. At 18 minutes, it is one of the longer pieces of the program, but due to its eclectic construction it feels longer and is emotionally exhausting by the end.

Emilie LeBel’s Taxonomy of Paper Wings is then an interesting detour as, while there is a sense of lyricism, it unfolds more subtly, relying on moments of near stasis and ephemeral soundscape than formal drama. Her writing then felt like a focused and singular idea, contrasting the eclecticism and sectionality of the prior works and later work by Nicole Lizée. Most of the piece features high harmonic drones with melody and fragments playing underneath. Especially with it’s slower tempo and softer dynamic, there is an understatedness and contemplative warmth. Again, a piece emphasizes soundscape and pace as opposed to mechanical development in the prior pieces, presenting another approach that is a much-needed breath of fresh air to the program.

The final piece, by contrast, had theatrics and charisma to burn, perhaps even too much. Nicole Lizée’s Isabella Blow at Somerset House is a recollection of a posthumous exhibit to the woman of the same name — a magazine editor and fashion muse. Lizée seemed to have latched onto Blow’s gaudiness: players stomp onto the stage to join the initially lone violinist, perform body and vocal percussion, and sing. Lizée also emphasizes her electroacoustic and DJ background — common affair for her music—having the quartet often imitating tightly knit electronic delays. The repetitiveness further harkens to popular and post-minimal music, but the speed and frequency of changing sections (as well as verbosity) indicate that there is more in common with a mixtape than with a work by Philip Glass.

Only night two, and with three more days to go, the 21c is just getting started.

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