palette.jpg
Composer Gary Kulesha draws from a full musical palette.
Seattle Chamber Music Society

Benaroya Recital Hall, Friday

For me, the highlight of the Seattle Chamber

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Seattle Chamber Music Society: Resistant to Conventional Wisdom

palette.jpg
Composer Gary Kulesha draws from a full musical palette.
Seattle Chamber Music Society

Benaroya Recital Hall, Friday

For me, the highlight of the Seattle Chamber Music Society's summer season is the now-traditional premiere: a brand-new work paid for by the SCMS Commissioning Club, a consortium of patrons who pool their funds. This summer the nod went to University of Toronto composer Gary Kulesha. He and four musicians--violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Marcus Thompson, cellist Efe Baltacigil, and pianist Orion Weiss--previewed his Piano Quartet before Friday's concert, breaking it down and discussing its combination of traditional form (four movements, in the template Haydn and Mozart established) and modernistic idioms. This is emblematic of Kulesha's gratifyingly non-doctrinaire approach, open to the limitless possibilities of 21st-century composition ("I tried to emulate everything I've ever listened to," he said) and resistant to conventional wisdom and its labels ("I don't think in terms of tonal or atonal anymore," he said of his approach to harmony).

"Eclectic," though, would be the wrong word to describe Kulesha's quartet--it implies a sort of patchwork approach, whereas the composer was impressively expert at melding any method or device he chose into a convincingly personal whole. For example, there was the very beginning, a sweeping but angular passage for strings with piano punctuation: Kulesha combines ragtime rhythms (syncopations over the middle of the bar) and jazz harmonies (fistfuls of seventh chords) in music that sounds nothing like either. His use of quarter-tones--sliding and bending the pitch slightly up and down--not only doesn't halt the movement's striding energy, it adds to the music's captivating sense of swing and sway, a propulsion both harmonic and rhythmic. After all this vigor, the ending is an effective surprise: the music dissolves, crumbles apart, in glassy, fragmented whispers from the three strings.

There's another startling effect at the beginning of the second movement, titled "Meditation": chords on the viola and cello, played coolly and without vibrato, sounding like a reedy, wheezing harmonium. Over this, a violin melody develops into a dialogue with the piano, which takes over to establish a more glowering, angsty mood. This relaxes into an emptier, starker texture; the quarter-tones return in benumbed string lines over a repeated questioning piano gesture.

As the fleet third-movement scherzo opens, each beat is subdivided into three--a familiar-sounding 6/8--but later Kulesha plays with other subdivisions, fours and fives, different rhythms layered simultaneously in the strings: sort of a ground-shifting-underneath effect. The finale was seemingly composed according to the principle that an idea worth using once is worth using twice, incorporating the sweep and energy of the beginning; more quarter-tone swaying; more unsettled, layered rhythms; and the biting, two-note Morse Code figures from the opening of the scherzo: da-dit! da-dit!

The audience response was fervent and enthusiastic; what we warmed to, I imagine, was not merely the quartet's beguiling color, wide-ranging imaginativeness, or infectious dash, but the clarity and directness (and non-obscurantism) with which Kulesha deployed and communicated his ideas. The next step now for the SCMS is to establish a tradition of follow-up performances for their successful commissions. The usual one-and-done approach to premieres has been a bugaboo for composers for decades, and if there ever was a piece that deserved to be brought back in an upcoming festival, it's this one.

*****

SEATTLE CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY Benaroya Recital Hall, Third Avenue and Union Street. See seattlechambermusic.org for full schedule. $15-$45. Ends July 29.

 
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