Concert Review— The American String Project

Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, USA, 14 March 2003

The idea with this concert, part of a three-night series, was that UW professor Barry Lieberman modified many classical string pieces to add a double-bass part. And then got "Fifteen Internationally Renowned Guest Artists" together to play them in a nice concert hall. Though since he was one of the fifteen, who's the Host Artist?

Mozart, String Quartet No 19 in C Major. The very beginning, with the ominious bass part, sounded like movie music. Then it all pretty much blended together and I didn't stay very focussed. One of the violins, according to the notes, was made in 1652. But the violins all looked about the same, and nobody really looked much like their head shots in the program guide, so I couldn't figure out which it was. Can you imagine writing sheet music for an electric guitar or a synthesizer and, three centuries later, that instrument not only still existing but being unchanged in sound and appearance?

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 11 in f minor. This got my attention. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than the Mozart. Seated in the fifth row, we could hear the concertmaster (lead violinist) very clearly: before each new passage, she took a short, intense breath through the nose, what we call in my martial arts class a "combative breath," and then attacked her violin fiercly with her bow. It was very impressive. (As you can see, I'm bringing the full weight of my extensive, detailed knowledge of classical music to bear in this review. By counting the parts where it felt like we should applaud but nobody did, I was even able to track which movement we were on. Hey, what do left-handed string players do? Play backwards? Reverse the strings?)

Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings, in C Major. My favorite piece of the night. It had two modes. In one, all fifteen players - a bass, two cellos, two or three violas, many violins - performed exactly the same notes at exactly the same time. (Well, I guess maybe some of the bigger instruments played related notes in different, I guess they're octaves or something. I wouldn't know, really.) That mode was very loud, and everybody was really tight so it sounded great.

In the other mode, about ten people would all play one melody while another melody would hop back and forth across the remaining players, who either bowed or plucked a few notes at a time. Again, they were all very tight, so that it was like one musician playing continuously while jumping around the stage, while surrounded by another musician with twenty hands. I liked the Tchaikovsky the most.