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Seeking new resonance from shards of the past

Brentano Quartet gets composers to revive 'Fragments'

The purpose of the “Fragments’’ project is “to help people listen through the ears of a composer, through the ears of a creator,’’ says Mark Steinberg (left, with Brentano String Quartet colleagues Misha Amory, Serena Canin, and Nina Lee). The purpose of the “Fragments’’ project is “to help people listen through the ears of a composer, through the ears of a creator,’’ says Mark Steinberg (left, with Brentano String Quartet colleagues Misha Amory, Serena Canin, and Nina Lee). (Peter Schaaf)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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In music as in sculpture or painting, unfinished works by great masters of the past often carry a magnetism all their own. It stems from how they allow us to glimpse the creative act not as a closed and completed deed but as an organic process; the fragment gives us a kind of freeze frame of a work still coming into being, vibrating with contingency and possibility.

Over the decades, various hands have tried picking up where Mozart, Mahler, Bruckner, and Puccini - to name just a few - left off, devising completions of various grand operatic and symphonic works. The chamber music literature too has its share of alluring fragments, yet they have more often been simply left to lie incomplete. A few years ago, Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the New York-based Brentano Quartet began collecting such fragments. He had big plans for them.

The Brentano had often enjoyed performing what is perhaps the best known fragment in the chamber repertoire, Schubert’s Quartettsatz (D. 703), abandoned after one full movement and a partially sketched Andante. But how exactly do you follow this truncated masterpiece on a program? Steinberg had the idea of commissioning a response from a living composer, or even better, a series of responses from a range of living composers, all commenting on the works left incomplete by their musical forebears. The “Fragments’’ project was born.

“Once a piece is complete and reified, there’s a sense that you can’t touch it anymore,’’ said Steinberg by phone from a festival in Maine. “And yet with these fragments, the raw nerves are still showing, and you see that there’s an actual human being that was writing and sculpting the piece. There’s something that’s very moving about that, something that’s wonderfully suggestive. The piece points in more directions than it would otherwise. And I thought that this might be inspiring to [today’s] composers as well.’’

For the project, conceived to mark the Brentano’s 20th anniversary season, the group chose six living composers, matching all but one of them with an individual fragment. Bruce Adolphe wrote a response to the Quartettsatz; John Harbison has composed a “Finale’’ to follow the two existing movements of Haydn’s Quartet Op. 103; and Sofia Gubaidulina, a Russian composer of mystical leanings, has responded to the famous unfinished concluding fugue of Bach’s “Art of Fugue.’’

Additionally, Stephen Hartke has responded to an orphaned opening quartet movement by Shostakovich, probably written between the composer’s published Eighth and Ninth Quartets; and Vijay Iyer, best known as a jazz pianist, chose a Mozart quartet fragment in E minor (K. 417d), and wrote his own reply titled “Mozart Effects.’’ As a kind of framing work, the program begins with a piece by Charles Wuorinen called “Marian Tropes,’’ which itself contains references to abandoned movements of masses by Josquin and Dufay.

The Brentano premiered the program this summer in Portland, Ore., and will be bringing it to Rockport Music’s Shalin Liu Performance Center on Oct. 16. Given the array of living composers presented, the rare chance to hear the older fragments themselves, and the program’s thoughtful framing of the complex negotiation between past and present that churns in the background whenever new music is forged within an older tradition, the Brentano’s “Fragments’’ project is, for me, the most enticing chamber music offering of the fall season.

It won’t be the first time that the Brentano has taken a creative approach to presenting new or challenging repertoire. Past projects in a similar vein have involved commissioning Mark Strand to write poems responding to Webern’s aphoristic music for string quartet, and building an entire program around the responses of living composers to Bach’s “Art of Fugue.’’

“We try to get into the language of music itself and the way music talks to other music,’’ Steinberg said. The goal, he added, is “to help people listen through the ears of a composer, through the ears of a creator, and to almost feel involved in the process of creation themselves, while listening.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

THE BRENTANO QUARTET’S ‘FRAGMENTS’ PROJECT

At the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Oct. 16 at 3 p.m. 978-546-7391 or www.rockportmusic.org