A Rare, Fascinating Program of String Quartet Music by African-American Composers at Bryant Park

by delarue

Every year, this blog (and its predecessor) has chosen both a Brooklyn and Manhattan space as best venue of the year for each borough. In 2018, not wanting to settle for the obvious (i.e. Carnegie Hall and the Village Vanguard) and frustrated by the closure of so many small clubs, the pick for best Manhattan venue went to Bryant Park. Home to an annual, multi-night accordion festival as well as plenty of jazz festivals, chamber music and global sounds over the years, the space had earned it. In a long-awaited and highly auspicious return to live classical music there last night, a quartet featuring members of the American Symphony Orchestra played a rich, rare mix of music by African-American composers.

They opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s Three Spirituals For String Quartet, which quickly took on a gently benedictory ambience as the four musicians joined in unison in a lullaby theme. Cellist Alberto Parrini gave it a delicate pizzicato pulse, the group rising to distantly blues-tinged variations over an increasingly vibrant, dancing drive.

Violinist Phillip Payton, who’d put together this fascinating program, played first chair for that one and then switched positions with the ASO’s concertmaster, Cyrus Beroukhim for Jessie Montgomery’s 2008 piece Voodoo Dolls. Parrini and first-chair ASO violist William Frampton dug in with their bandmates for a recurrently grim, staccato pedalpoint, akin to Julia Wolfe at her bluesiest. Bracingly glissandoing chords set off a suspenseful lull, then the group bowed hard and swooped through the finale. Payton made no secret of how much he loved that piece: it was the big hit of the night with the audience, a relatively sparse but raptly attentive crowd of maybe sixty people scattered across the space behind the library.

Next on the bill were movements one, three and four of Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. The quartet matter-of-factly worked steady, Mozartean exchanges as the music shifted from a pensive, old-world minor-key theme to a more warmly enveloping atmosphere that seemed to draw as much on the French Romantics (Faure most noticeably) as the African-American gospel tradition.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, as Payton explained, bridged a lot of genres. He played in Max Roach’s jazz group and later arranged for Marvin Gaye. His String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary, ” contained “A lot of notes we’re not expected to play,” Payton grinned, “Very jazzy harmonies!” He wasn’t kidding. Steady, rapidly strolling bluesiness quickly receded for more chromatic, brooding passages, like Bartok at his most unadorned. From there the ensemble followed a counterintuitive downward arc, from shivery counterpoint, a tease of a big swell and then crepuscular, flickering pianissimo textures that gently filtered away. The final movement, with its wickedly catchy cello lines, delivered a triumphant, anthemic payoff.

Trevor Weston’s Juba for String Quartet, the newest piece on the bill, seemed to be a study in how far from the blues a series of variations can go. In this group’s hands, that meant pretty far, and involving some extended technique, but also not so far that the center was lost. Terse, spare riffs were spun through a kaleidoscope and then back, through numerous dynamic shifts and ghostly harmonics.

William Grant Still’s first symphony, Payton explained, was in its time the most-played orchestral work by an American composer. His three-movement Lyric Quartette (Musical Portraits of Three Friends), from 1960, was the final piece on the bill. The composer’s eclecticism was front and center here, more than alluding to Romany swing after a fondly Romantic song without words to open the triptych, later finding common ground between Indian carnatic music and the blues. Quasi-microtonal flickers added depth to the incisively minor-key, jubilantly emphatic conclusion and its coyly Beethoven-ish series of false endings.

The quartet encored with Price’s heartwarmingly familiar variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The organizers behind the music at Bryant Park seem to be determined to help this city get back to normal; their long-running series of solo shows on the park’s electric piano continues on several weekdays into next month. This string quartet return there on Sept 21 at 5:30 PM with a program including works by Samuel Barber and Nino Rota.