The Ancora String Quartet played its final concert of the season on Saturday, May 30 -- at their home base, the First Unitarian Society -- nicely filling a yawning gap between the end of spring's formal music-making and the stirring of busy summer activities in Madison. It filled the gap, too, with a particularly intriguing program of novelties. This was the third of the season's "critics' choice" programs, this one suggested by Norman Gilliland of Wisconsin Public Radio station WERN, who gave a short talk on the music before the concert.
As the opener, Gilliland chose a rare chamber work by Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), whose premature death cut short a promising career. In his "Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes" (1918-19) Griffes took a leaf from the so-called "Indianist" school of American composers, but he also looked back to Dvo?ák's advice that a truly national idiom of American music could come from exploitation of African-American and Indian musical sources. Griffes' results in this case combine the haunting and the vigorous in evoking a vanished cultural voice, to which the quartet responded with feeling.
The main work was the first of two string quartets composed late in his life by Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884). As its title, "From My Life," suggests, it portrays four aspects of the composer's increasingly unhappy life and sufferings. Within the conventions of the traditional four-movement string quartet, Smetana composed music of passionate intensity. The Ancora players sound somewhat raw in at least the three boisterous movements, but in that regard they captured quite honestly the heart-on-sleeve character Smetana intended.
But the really surprising gem came at the end, with the "Minimax" string quartet by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). Composed in 1923, it consists of six sections, each full of visual as well as musical gags, in-group jokes (many now no longer intelligible), and parodies of established musical idioms or clichés, especially Viennese. It belongs to the tradition of Mozart's "Musical Joke," which, however, spoofed uncultivated "village musicians" and bad composers, whereas Hindemith's targets were professional musicians of his day. Indeed, he himself was a working violist in an established ensemble, the Amar Quartet, which gave this score its first (private) performance, so Hindemith apparently had a lot of string-quartet humor in mind.
Our Ancora players had a whale of a good time with it, mixing lots of mugging and body humor into their careful playing, both refined and deliberately off-pitch. The audience lapped it up. Once again the Ancora Quartet proved what a valuable component it has become of Madison's musical life, offering fresh and unusual repertoire in highly accomplished performances.