incident light

Ebène Quartet

Rigor in action, from Mozart to Miles

April 16, 2013

A few minutes before the Ebène Quartet began playing a superb concert on April 14, a subscriber and a board member of the sponsoring San Antonio Chamber Music Society conducted a frank exchange of views in the Temple Beth-El lobby.

Their discussion concerned the propriety of the program’s second half, described as “Jazz and Pop Standards, re-imagined by the Ebène Quartet.” The subscriber fervently hoped the fall from classical graces would not portend a trend.

I confess some suspicions of my own, but they were dispelled by the outsized intelligence, fierce discipline and untethered curiosity the French troupe applied to the more-traditional first half, which comprised Mozart’s sunny Quartet in C (“Dissonant”), K. 465 , and Felix Mendelssohn’s dark Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80. It was clear from these performances that the Ebène was constitutionally incapable of anything cheap.

That impression was confirmed by the “re-imagined” jazz and pop standards themselves, but first let’s address the two classical standards. The Ebène Quartet re-imagined those, too, in a sense: The performance of neither work seemed to have been governed by any preconceptions about “Mozartean” or “Mendelssohnian” -- or even “classical” or “Romantic” -- style. The touchstone in each case seemed to be the score itself and the players’ fresh, unprejudiced investigation into what the score meant and why.

In Mozart, the troupe favored a minimal, very narrow vibrato and a lithe approach to phrasing that kept the textures light and clear. In the Mendelssohn, a powerful work expressing the composer’s grief over the death of his older sister Fanny, a general lightness of texture served to emphasize by contrast the outbursts of anger and breast-beating grief.

These were rigorous performances, exceptionally well-planned, intensively prepared, with taut ensemble and exquisite chordings. But it was the kind of rigor that conceals rigor. Every moment of the Mozart, especially, seemed fresh and alive and surprising. The music sounded less abstract than usual, less a settled object of reverence, and nearer to our own contemporary sensibility.

From the printed program’s bare description of the second half, one might surmise that it was an example of “crossover,” that pandering genre which is disdained equally by the partisans of classical and pop music alike.

The Ebène’s “re-imaginings” were not crossover. They were artistically ambitious, complex, vibrant works that stood on their own merits, but that borrowed familiar pop and jazz tunes as thematic material.  The recompositions (not mere arrangements) were group efforts by the quartet’s players -- violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadore, violist Mathieu Herzog, cellist Raphael Merlin -- but they were far more unified than one might expect from committee work.

John Lennon’s “Come Together” germinated a piece that sounded as though it could have been written by Bela Bartok -- whose use of Hungarian folk material and idioms was not so very different from the Ebène’s approach to its “re-imaginings.”  Often, the pieces employed jazz, blues and pop  techniques along with a wide spectrum of modern classical techniques -- wonderful sliding notes in “Misirlou,” the Greek folk song; elaborate violin solos that sounded like jazz improvisations in Miles Davis’s “All Blues” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” Erroll Garner’s “Misty” opened with a long cello solo that incorporated jazz and blues inflections, but which was also informed by the Bach cello suites. Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” got a thorough deconstruction and reconstruction. Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” opened with glassy high harmonics that owed as much to Darmstadt as to Buenos Aires.

Mike Greenberg