The Guarneri and Johannes string quartets'
The Johannes's new quartet was "Homunculus" by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who famously moonlights conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's a close-packed work - numerous dense, contrasting short sections piled up into a loose fast-slow-fast-slow structure. Salonen's harmonies, redolently slipping back and forth across the dissonant-consonant border, often echo Debussy, as do specific textures: slow melodies stretched over tremolo chords, coruscating torrents of downward arpeggios.
Except for a brief viola solo toward the end, all four instruments are active nearly the whole time; traditional chamber music conversations play out in traffic. But "Homunculus" sounds marvelous, colorful and rich. By comparison, the Guarneri's piece, New York-based composer Derek Bermel's "Passing Through," was a trifle: a turn-of-the-last-century parlor-sweet berceuse - the sort of thing Charles Ives would have quoted - periodically interjected with faux-modernist asides.
The excellent performances highlighted each group's tonal approach: If the Johannes's chromium-steel clarity was like a deep-focus photograph, the Guarneri opted for painted brush strokes, softer-edged, smoothing sonic contrasts with a warm varnish.
The groups joined for William Bolcom's magnificent new "Octet: Double Quartet." Bolcom's omnivorous style - vernacular echoes abound - is anchored by a classical sense of proportion and form: The varied musics unfold with sure dramatic intent. The work tends toward darkness, even violence; the sharply etched second movement ends with harrowing, slashing chords, bows inching toward the instruments' bridges, a rain of metallic shrapnel. Even the jaunty barcarolle that frames the "Rondeau" finale grows out of joint and dissonantly hazy. With occasional exceptions - the high tangle of violins at the opening, a Mendelssohnian thin-ice scherzo - the sound carries ominous weight and grandeur.
Felix Mendelssohn's 1825 Octet closed the concert: In a robust, energetic performance, the contrasts between the two quartets paid fascinating musical dividends, the Johannes providing precise rhythmic horsepower, the Guarneri giving the harmonies a pillowy, elegant buoyancy. The 16-year-old Mendelssohn's incandescent masterpiece coursed with enough invention to amplify, not erase, the program's novel cast.