Tesla Quartet at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, February 22, 2018
By Don Howland, host of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (Sundays from 8-10 pm)
This concert at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center by the Tesla Quartet – including pieces by Bartok, Ravel (piano minuets transcribed by lead violinist Russ Snyder), and Hugo Kauder, a Viennese composer who fled the Nazis and wound up teaching polyphony at Black Mountain College (BMC) in the summer of 1945 – was a rare opportunity for locals to hear 20th Century classical music played really, really well.
It was the second appearance by the Tesla Quartet in Asheville in the last two years that I’m aware of. They have a residency at nearby Lenoir-Rhyne University, which brings them to the area on an infrequent but regular basis. Last time they were here, it was under the auspices of Free Range Asheville (FRA) and held at the considerably roomier Masonic Temple; FRA’s Jeff Arnal got the job as director of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (BMCM+AC) since then, and he set up this show as well. The museum/gallery is a great place to see a small ensemble performance. Playing huddled tightly together in the back of the narrow room, beneath some large ab-ex canvases from an old BMC student (Gerald van de Wiele), and before a dozen rows of folding chairs, the first row two feet away, the Teslas electrified the crowded, low-ceilinged room.
By far the best-known of the BMC music faculty was John Cage, who held his first “happening” at BMC. Less known, by a light year or so, was Hugo Kauder. Kauder (1888-1972) did not rate an entry in Norman Lebrecht’s Companion of 20th Century Music even though he was dead long before the book was published, nor did any reviews of his music (only two CDs exist, from what I can tell) appear in the vast-in-scope bi-monthly Fanfare. He was nonetheless prolific, producing over 300 works. His fourth string quartet was written in 1927, six years after his first, and he would go on to write a whopping 13 more. Kauder was the impetus for this show at the BMCM+AC. A member of the Hugo Kauder Society delivered an introduction in the form of a fan letter to the long-dead composer, and Kauder’s granddaughter, a woman in her golden years, also thanked everyone for coming and introduced the performers.
The show began with four short madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo da Venossa (1566-1613), transcribed for string quartet (from five vocal parts) by Tesla’s Snyder. He said the poems whose words accompany the madrigals were profane and melancholic. I enjoyed the four pieces quite a bit, but waited too long (a week) to say much about them otherwise.
The chance to hear a top-notch string quartet play a Bartok piece is what persuaded me to actually go downtown on a Friday night in the first place. Though it didn’t come up, the Teslas are undoubtedly aware of Asheville’s other claim to 20th Century art music fame – the mid-term stay by Bela Bartok here in the winter of 1943-44. In his waning days and aware of it, Bartok worked hard while he was in Asheville – a last gasp during which he completed his third piano concerto (called “the Asheville Concerto” when it is played here every now and again) for his wife Ditta to perform, worked on the viola concerto that was posthumously completed by associates, and (according to one account I read) revised his best-known late work, his “Concerto for Orchestra.” The house he stayed in is now a bed-and-breakfast; I keep meaning to check it out.
The six string quartets Bartok left behind when he died in 1945 are regarded by most devotees of modern music as the equal of the Shostakovich set, which is to say the best the century produced. They are intense and intricate, full of swooping and skittering and plucking, verging on atonality for long passages, only to emerge in splashes of astounding melody or haunting glissandos. Bartok’s quartets present a challenge to players; even the most highly rated recordings get demi-demerits for being either a little too too serious (e.g., the Emerson Quartet’s set on Deutsche Grammophon) or a little too playful (the Tokyo Quartet’s set, also on DG). On this evening, the Tesla took on the third quartet, from 1927. It is by far the shortest of the six, almost a miniature relative to the others, but it is not a lesser work. It’s a kaleidoscopic and hard-focus 14 minutes without a slow movement. From watching the Teslas play up close – Michelle Lie, first violinist for this segment, could have elbowed me in the face had she chosen to do so – I’d say they strike the perfect balance of serious-to-playful for Bartok. The music put me in mind of bats zinging around a lit billboard on a summer night, a billboard by my old apartment, across from a White Castle; I would watch whenever I could.
I am going to try to see the Tesla Quartet whenever I can. As I often say on my radio show, I have only been listening carefully to this kind of music for three years (and knew not much beforehand except the names Bartok and Shostakovich), but I know the Bartok quartets well enough to recognize awesome playing. I own three sets (the aforementioned two, plus one by the Takacs Quartet, which is also excellent), and I would buy one by the Tesla Quartet, especially after seeing the manner in which they played the third.
Following a Bartok quartet, especially a brilliantly realized one, on a bill would be a tough slot for almost any piece of music, but the Kauder Quartet No. 4 was at least different enough that it did not present a letdown, by any stretch. While nowhere near as challenging to the performers or audience, Kauder’s quartet was lyrical, playful and, if anything, a little too short. (The entire Tesla performance was a little over an hour, which is about right in this ADD world.) In his introduction to the piece, cellist Serafim Smigelskiy said it was a piece they really had fun playing, and they had fun playing it at BMCM+AC. (The remaining Tesla member is violist Edwin Kaplan.)
Without a heads-up (or perhaps a better knowledge of music), Kauder’s fourth would be difficult to identify as coming from an Austrian or, for that matter, a modernist. Its themes brought to mind England or Scotland – vaguely pastoral, more Frank Bridge or Vaughan Williams-like in orientation than Berg or Webern. Which is, to me, an exceedingly good thing. I enjoyed the piece enough that when I got home I downloaded a 2007 recording of Kauder’s first four string quartets, very well played by the Euclid Quartet in a fine-sounding recording on the Centaur label. The Tesla performance was just as good.
A pre-programmed encore included three Ravel piano minuets arranged for quartet by Snyder. Before launching into them, Snyder announced that their debut CD will be out in the fall (possibilities include the MSR label or the British label Orchid, both of which are excellent, from a look at their catalogues). It will have a Haydn quartet, the Ravel Quartet (which they nailed at the Masonic Temple show and is another piece I know well enough to vouch for), and the transcribed Ravel minuets.
Lanky, vibrant and affable (they look like a Division III cross country team), the Tesla Quartet would seem to have a very bright future. I definitely recommend checking them out. They have two upcoming shows in the region: Hickory on March 31 and Hendersonville on April 8. On each date they’ll be playing a piece that resulted from an annual online “Call for Scores” the quartet sponsors. (The winning piece, by an Ozark composer, uses a field recording made in Asheville, which could be cool).
By all means, visit their site for news of shows, releases and competitions and check out some of their numerous videos on YouTube. Supporting young artists like the Tesla Quartet – buying CDs and attending performances – is a positive gesture in a negative world.
The Hugo Kauder Society, meanwhile, is a living and breathing thing, sponsoring an annual chamber music competition (which the Euclid Quartet won, incidentally) among other things.
[Photo courtesy of Alice Sebrell.]