Review by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – String quartet Ethel played one of the rockingest concerts ever at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday night.
Yes, you read that right. Although the group is a classic, classical string quartet – two violins, a viola and cello – and the musicians studied at places like Tanglewood and teach at places like Mannes College of Music, Ethel is really a rock group disguised as a string quartet. There was no doubt about this as soon as they kicked off their concert with a dynamic, no-holds-barred version of the late Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” which provided the title and theme of the evening’s program. Violinist Tema Watstein played the role of Buckley through her dazzling, electric playing, as dramatic as Buckley’s original vocals, with Kip Jones strumming his violin, recapitulating the memorable acoustic guitar breaks.
That was the only composition that actually came from the rock idiom – and, perhaps, the only one not written by a living composer. The remainder of the pieces were written by contemporary composers in a variety of styles. “Memory” by Marcelo Zarvos was a jazzy minimalist confection that built up quite a head of steam, and Vijay Iyer’s “Mutation #1” could easily have been mistaken for the work of Steve Reich (that’s a compliment).
Kip Jones’s own “Chorale” was pretty and contemplative, perhaps the most “classical”-sounding piece of the evening.
“Diacritical Marks” by Nico Muhly, one of the hottest contemporary composers, whose work is showing up on programs everywhere, does not appear to be one of the composer’s best pieces – it was literally incoherent – it did not cohere in any way I could tell, but seemed like passages tacked together. And I cannot imagine a less restful way to spend in corpse pose than listening to Mary Ellen Childs’s “Shavasana.”
Film composer Ennio Morricone’s Suite from “The Mission,” on the other hand, was a dramatic journey – indeed, it could be the string quartet version of one of those prog-rock epics by early Genesis.
Kudos to the Mahaiwe for such innovative programming. Next time around, it needs to be sold as a rock concert, and maybe it will attract a larger audience, along the way opening the ears and minds of those who might never think that a string quartet could rock so fearsomely.