Sitting at the bar yesterday afternoon, a new musician friend’s eyes widened. “You went to Staten Island last night to see the 8th Shostakovich? I’d go to Staten Island to see that!”
An intimate crowd of Staten Islanders, a cool couple from New Jersey and at least one Manhattanite made it out to the Staten Island Art Museum Saturday night to see a string quartet subset of the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble deliver a meticulous, absolutely chilling, transcendent performance of that harrowing piece of music along with two eye-opening world premieres, plus a similar work from the 70s, a smashingly intuitive bit of programming.
Dmitri Shostakovich reputedly wrote his eighth string quartet over a three-day span in 1959. As he put it, it was a self-penned obituary. The story goes that he was under the assumption that the KGB – who’d murdered so many of his friends and colleagues – were about to come for him. He’d been asked to formally join the Soviet Communist Party, a choice he’d dodged for decades.
Composer Andrew Rosciszewski – whose two premieres would follow on the bill – counted 158 moments when Shostakovich musically referenced his own initials throughout the piece: tracked, and followed, and as he saw it, ultimately dead in those tracks.
The group – violinists Izabella Liss Cohen and Mikhail Kuchuk, violist Lucy Corwin and cellist Timothy Leonard – channeled every frantic moment, every steady upward trajectory toward horror. The relentlessness they brought to the introductory chase scene, then the crushing irony in the merciless kangaroo court references afterward were a a cautionary tale to the extreme. One can only imagine how much more easily a death squad could have targeted dissident composers if Facebook had existed in 1959.
That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to both the quality of the material and the performance. The group closed with Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, which like the Shostakovich was written behind the Iron Curtain and, while less grim, builds a coldly immutable atmosphere and also contains sarcastic faux-pageantry. It’s also much harder to play. Leonard is a beast of a cellist: pedaling the same note resolutely for what seemed like twenty minutes, with perfectly unflinching inflection is a recipe for muscle cramps, among other pain, and he didn’t let up. Corwin shared many such moments, often in tandem with him, and was equal to the challenge. This endless conflict between relentlessness and restlessness brought to mind the question, which came first, this, or Louis Andriessen’s similarly mechanical if much louder Worker’s Union?
In between, the world premiere of Rosciszewski’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 made not only a perfect segue but helped complete the circle; they’re essentially the missing links between the two other works on the bill, a homage to Shostakovich and Gorecki as well as a prime example of how a 21st century composer can springboard off their respective styles. The ensemble played No. 2 first, uneasily conversational, emphatically minimal phrases juxtaposed with subtly shifting permutations on a theme, with a twisted, wickedly difficult microtonal klezmer dance of sorts as a scherzo in the middle. Which was extremely demanding, especially for Cohen, but she sprinted between the raindrops and slid through pools of microtones and made it look easy, as did Kuchuk when his turn came up. Rosciszewski’s First String Quartet was much shorter and came across as something of a study for the second, beginning with a bracing minor-key polka. Like Shostakovich, Rosciszewski’s work is distinguished by considerable humor and an omnipresent sense of irony. These pieces instantly put him on the map as someone worth watching: he deserves to be vastly better known
The Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble are artists-in-residence at the Staten Island Museum. The theme of their current season there is revolution, an apt choice this year; their next concert is March 4 at 8 PM featuring a program of vocal music TBA. Cover is $15/$5 for students.