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Aperghis and Janáček: Talea Ensemble, iO Quartet. Roger Smith Hotel, New York City, 27.9.2009 (BH)

: Sept Crimes de l'Amour (1979)

Janáček: String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate letters" (1928)

High above New York City, on the 16th floor of the Roger Smith Hotel, lurks an afternoon concert series curated by artistic director Matthew Semler. This example featured just two works, Georges Aperghis's Sept Crimes de l'Amour, delivered with deadpan gusto by the Talea Ensemble, and Janáček's Second String Quartet, "Intimate Letters," in a gutsy reading by the iO Quartet. I kept wondering if anyone in the audience had been directed upstairs by the concierge "to hear some chamber music," and whether they were expecting say, Mozart.

Aperghis, perhaps best known for his theatrics in Studies for Solo Voice, has created a humorous, existential look at the interactions between a soprano (here, Mary Mackenzie), clarinetist (Christa Van Alstine) and percussionist (Alex Lipowski), all drawing heavily on the absurd, as if Ionesco had temporarily abandoned playwrighting to try out composition. In the first, the members of the trio are seated, attempting to play but quietly fidgeting, ready to burst with frustration, until a fourth player unexpectedly appears with a wooden whip crack and jolts them into action. The second Crime has the clarinet blowing into a small drum, and in the third, the singer holds a second clarinet while reclining across the laps of the other two players.

The unexpected star of the fourth section is an apple, which the singer conspicuously chews and spits out on the floor, while glaring at the other two players. The fifth seems like an adagio interlude, with all three facing away from each other in a soft drone, until the end when they suddenly spring up like squirrels who heard an unfamiliar sound. The finale reprises some of each of the previous movements, including the apple pulp, now beginning to fill the room with a faint scent. Each section uses a Webern-like vocabulary, with silences framing many of the sounds, and ultimately requires a certain unhinged bonhomie from the performers. (Straight-laced types may want to stick to Vivaldi.) Mackenzie, Van Alstine and Lipowski, made the most of the score's comic timing, in a performance that Marcel Duchamp probably would have admired.

More than 700 missives exchanged between Janáček and Kamila Stösslová—a married woman considerably younger than the composer— inspired his Second String Quartet, "Intimate Letters." It is a valentine to a substantial relationship, with the viola surging forward to represent Kamila. Here, the iO Quartet, a young ensemble with considerable chops, did the title proud. The opening movement mixed sweep and bristle, with snowdrifts of soft, glassy tone sharing space with louder volleys peppering down. The suave Adagio encouraged the group's tender side, before the arresting final movements. I wrote "forbidden, shrieking love" next to the third. The quartet, with Alex Woods and Sara Crocker (violins), Elizabeth Weisser (viola) and Chris Gross (cello), tore into the last Allegro, finding devilish fury in its folk rhythms. Sometimes intimacy implies serenity and quietude. Here, the emphasis seemed on illuminating a bond of almost painful intensity.

Bruce Hodges 

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