Music at St. David’s: The Bergamot Quartet

March 1st, 2019

There is something satisfying about the sound produced by a family of instruments. Such a sound might be as close as instruments can get to imitating the power achieved by a choir of voices. Of all the western music instrument families, the violin family is perhaps the most famous, and the wealth of quality repertoire composed for the string quartet medium reflects this popularity.

On Friday, March 1st 2019, the Bergamot Quartet presented five compositions that reveal the current treatment of the string quartet as a musical genre. The concert, held at St. David’s Episcopal Church, was part of the 2018-2019 Music at St. David’s series curated by Douglas Buchanan. The Bergamot Quartet is Ledah Fink and Sarah Thomas, violins; Amy Tan, viola; and Irene Han, cello. 

Opening the program was a composition by Fink, String Quartet No.1, that featured each performer entering the stage one at a time. The first movement titled, Stars Fall in the Valley, began with a consonant soundscape of harmonics before yielding a lyrical melody played by the cello. The prominent use of the lydian mode created a gentle harmonic atmosphere not unlike the Americana sound of Aaron Copeland. The second movement, Greenbriar, was reminiscent of folk music heard on a fiddle, and the energy from the ensemble brought the dance to life.

Following Fink’s composition was a piece by Caroline Shaw. Her composition, Punctum is inspired by the choral writing of J.S. Bach, and the Bergamot Quartet offered a short prelude to the composition by singing a Bach chorale. Grand textures were felt during the performance of Punctum through the use of sustained notes, pizzicato, contrapuntal entrances, and cadences – both expected and unexpected. In a fun way, this piece reminded me of a rehearsal, or that moment before rehearsal begins where everyone is seemingly practicing their part at different speeds and in different places. The presence of the traditional rules of tonal harmony and counterpoint, yet not being played out in a standard formal design, kept me engaged and interested in the many possible directions each musical line could take. The moments where the ensemble provided a cohesive chorale texture were also refreshing due to the audience being denied a sense of resolution elsewhere.

Soo Yeon Lyuh’s improvisation titled Yessori (Sound from the Past) featured the quartet imitating the sounds of a traditional Korean instrument through the use of wide vibrato on slow developing notes and phrases. The piece largely comprised of a notes in a pentatonic scale also featured a section where the cellist held a rhythmic motive using a mallet on a metal object. This gave way to Jessie Montgomery’s composition, Strum, which opened with a plucked viola motive and included much strumming and rhythmic bowing. The soaring lines and romantic harmonies made for an exciting journey; this was a fun piece. The program concluded with Julia Wolfe’s Dig Deep. With a rough and rhythmic opening, jazzy licks, blues chords, and a pulse that remained heavy throughout, this piece was as near to a blues jam as a string quartet is going to get. There was plenty of droning with alternating rhythms and some lyrical moments, but ultimately the piece created a wall of sound that was exhausting by the end.

The Bergamot Quartet performed all of these pieces with great energy, conviction, and dedication to the music. The concert was the perfect length without needing an intermission and the programming was logical and effective. The concert was also well attended – a testament to the performers and the concert series, considering the miserable weather conditions on this particular evening. The Bergamot Quartet kept the audience alert and engaged, and they were rewarded with a positive reception at the conclusion.

String quartet music continues to be full of life and potential through the minds of 21st-century composers and the performing abilities of formative ensembles such as the Bergamot Quartet. Moments from this concert resonated so deep within me (both literally and figuratively) that I was immediately reminded of the expressive power of the genre. 

Jeremy Lyons is a guitarist, composer, and writer living in Baltimore City. He is an artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble, Pique Collective, a performing member of the music cooperative, Mind on Fire, and he collaborates with artists of all kinds working in a variety of mediums. If you want to get in touch with him or suggest an event for him to experience, use his contact page.