Corigliano Quartet performs at Cornish College

The Corigliano Quartet. Photo credit: Michael Jinsoo Lim.

Even though half of the Corigliano Quartet calls Seattle home, and another member has family in the city (Amy Sue Barston is the sister of Elisa Barston, principal second violin with the SSO), the group’s performances in the area haven’t been as plentiful as you might expect. To my knowledge, the last one was in 2008 when the group made their debut on the University of Washington’s International Chamber Series.  This quartet’s local schedule this season includes two concerts at the Cornish College of the Arts and a forthcoming performance in May with Simple Measures.

A Corigliano performance tends to be an adventure in contemporary music. This doesn’t mean the pieces they play are replete with dissonances, microtones, and explorations of the percussive properties of string instruments, far from it. The ensemble takes its name from the composer John Corigliano, a living, breathing, active artist who finds inspiration in the popular neo-romantic idiom that has demonstrated music can be easy on the ears and challenging to hear.

Michael Jinsoo Lim (violin), Lina Bahn (violin), Melia Watras (viola), and Amy Sue Barston (cello), perhaps channeling their namesake, regularly examine the tonal side of contemporary music in their programs. This was the case again Saturday April 3rd, as the ensemble presented music for string quartet by John Corigliano, Robert Maggio, Paul Moravec, Adam Silverman, and even W.A. Mozart at the Cornish College of the Arts.

A theme of fathers and family ran through the first half of the concert. The ensemble opened with Mozart’s Quartet in A Major K. 464. This quartet is one of the composer’s so called “Haydn Quartets.” So called because, the six quartets in this grouping of pieces are all dedicated to the father of the string quartet, the father of the symphony, the father of the piano trio — Franz Joseph Haydn.

Those accustomed to the perpetual buoyancy common in Mozart’s music will find the composer venturing into dark, forbidding territory in the K.464 quartet. The allegro first movement switched moods easily and quickly under quartet’s collective bows. Bright sounding rapture turned into an opaque fog which seemed to foreshadow introverted, latter works like the Clarinet Concerto and the Piano Concerto No. 25. After the ensemble gave a tidy, singing rendition of Mozart’s Menuetto, the quartet stepped back into Mozart’s shadowy music with an atmospheric reading of the third movement’s theme and variation. The members of the quartet stretched their individual voices beautifully in the piece’s finale, balancing their own voices with the collective sound of the whole for the movement’s chorale effects.

Following the Mozart quartet was the interesting but problematic Songbook for Annamaria by Robert Maggio. Michael Jinsoo Lim explained that Maggio wrote this piece for his daughter to give her a way to relate to her dad’s work. Maggio playfully manipulates songs that would be popular with children (and adults), including grin inducing twists of Jimmy Crack Corn, but even these touches of juvenilia weren’t enough to dispel my sense that the twenty minute piece is longer than the song material he is working with will allow.

The first half closed with another fatherly piece, this time Snapshot: Circa 1909 by John Corigliano. This five and a half minute piece, along with Paul Moravec’s Atmosfera a Villa Aurelia (which opened the second half), were the highlights of the program for me. For Corigliano, it was the memory of his father, the former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. Moravec depicts a different memory. For him, it is the memory of a villa in Italy the composer stayed at when he traveled there to receive the Rome Prize.

The Corigliano Quartet gave both pieces a longing, nostalgic performance suitable for the reflective nature of both works. The ensemble presented these two pieces with an uncanny sense of the imagery created by the music. In Moravec’s piece especially, the quartet embodied a sound world as descriptive as it was pleasant. You could almost imagine looking out over verdant Italian countryside, bathed in warm light, with Moravec at your side.

The recital ended with Adam Silverman’s Corrie Q’s Jigs and Reels. Amy Sue Barston explained because Silverman is married to Barston, he has become the quartet’s unofficial composer in residence. Silverman got his idea for Corrie Q’s Jigs and Reels by watching an Irish fiddling band in San Francisco. At Barston’s urging, Silverman composed a piece that sounds as suitable for a pub as it is for a concert hall. Silverman makes use of ample fiddling techniques and dance rhythms which give the piece an immediate charm. After Mozart’s moody string quartet, and introspective pieces by Moravec and Corigliano, Silverman’s piece closed the night in toe tapping ebullience and gave the Coriglianos a chance to let their hair down and have some fun.

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