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Gerald Carpenter: Arianna Quartet Cues Van Wyk, Mendelssohn for Chamber on the Mountain

The bright constellation of musicians calling themselves the Arianna String Quartet, quartet-in-residence at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday in Logan House, adjacent to the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts at 8585 Highway 150 in Upper Ojai. The concert is part of the excellent chamber music series, Chamber on the Mountain, under the direction of Heidi Lehwalder.

The Arianna program includes Arnold van Wyk’s Five Elegies for String Quartet (1940-1941); Henri Dutilleux’s String Quartet “Ainsi la nuit/Thus the night” (1976); and Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in f-minor, Opus 80 (1847).

On paper, this suggests a rather dark concert. The Van Wyk was written in London, during the London Blitz, when Edith Sitwell wrote:

Still falls the rain —

Dark as the world of man, black as our loss —

Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails

Upon the Cross.

while the Dutilleux has the word “Night” in its title and the Mendelssohn is an act of mourning. Notwithstanding all that, the concert itself is likely to prove a much more upbeat experience. As Pauline Kael once pointed out, it is only bad works of art that are depressing, regardless of their subjects. These are all very good works.

Van Wyk (1916-1983) is easily the greatest Afrikaner composer. The South African musicologist Jacques-Pierre Malan wrote, in a memorial piece in 1984, that an abstract art music native to South Africa “was the work of one man, the prophet of South African music, Arnold van Wyk. He was our first sovereign sound-master, the first one to draw attention abroad as a creative artist, the first to create locally, between all the foreign masters, the possibility of establishing an own music of the highest quality, the first to make musical achievements count as much as all the other achievements—to name just a few of the ‘firsts’.”

Van Wyk friend and champion, Scottish musicologist Howard Ferguson, wrote of the Five Elegies for String Quartet: “The title alone might suggest a set of five separate pieces cast in a uniformly grey mood. Such an impression would be false, however, for the work is essentially a single whole, and it covers an unexpectedly wide emotional range. This is perhaps less surprising when one considers how different are one’s reactions at different times to the thought of impermanence and decay. (It may be worth remembering, in this connection, that the work was written in wartime London, at the height of the Blitz.) Indeed, the Elegies contain all the variety, in themselves and between one another, that one would expect in a work lasting eighteen or nineteen minutes. But this diversity is always unified by an underlying elegiac mood.”

Dutilleux (1916-2013) was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundations to write a piece for the Juilliard String Quartet. Despite the poetic title of the work, and the specific, rather cerebral titles given to each movement, Thus the night sounds anything but programmatic; nor does it sound like the two works that Dutilleux says he consulted in teaching himself to write for the ensemble: Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Opus 9 (1913) and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (1926). Nevertheless, as Chris Boyes says, the piece “is often associated with the idea of memory.”

Mendelssohn (1809-1847) finished Opus 80 less than two months before he died. His beloved sister, Fanny, a good composer in her own write, had died the previous May, and he would never live to the end of his grief. He gave the quartet the title “Requiem for Fanny.”

General admission the Arianna String Quartet is $25; students get in for $15. Click here for advance reservations or to learn more about Chamber On The Mountain, or call 805.646.9951.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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