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The Lassus Quartett

The Arts

Out of time

Yellow Barn resident artists Lassus Quartett push the boundaries with an epic concert program in Putney

PUTNEY—Cellist David Eggert of Lassus Quartett hopes his audience will be receptive to a challenging program of music that his chamber ensemble will present through Yellow Barn.

“You never can tell with people,” he says. “Some want to hear what they are familiar with, and others are eager to be taken to new places.”

As Yellow Barn continues its 2019-2020 residency series, Lassus Quartett will perform Tuesday, Nov. 12, at 4 p.m., at The Putney School’s Currier Center, two monumental chamber pieces, Schubert’s G Major String Quartet and Morton Feldman’s gigantic String Quartet No. 2, a work lasting nearly six hours.

Inspired by the intricate immensity of Turkish tapestries, Feldman’s quartet is performed without pause, allowing sounds to accumulate into patterns to reveal the whole. Audience members are invited to attend any or all of the performance and to leave and return of their own accord.

The event is free. For reservations, visit www.yellowbarn.org or call 802-387-6637.

Lassus Quartett is a string ensemble composed of violinists Joel Bardolet and Antonio Viñuales, violist Adam Newman, and cellist David Eggert.

Based in Switzerland since 2015, Lassus Quartett represents an innovative approach to chamber music, integrating choral singing into original programming of new and old chamber music literature. They have been invited to perform at many festivals and chamber music series across Europe, including Switzerland, Germany, France, Norway, and Portugal. Currently they are in residency at Yellow Barn.

Eggert believes that this Yellow Barn residency is important for the Lassus Quartett because of the nature of the work they are planning to perform.

Massive works

“The Schubert and Feldman pieces of music take more time to prepare than usual works,” Eggert says. “You can’t quickly cook up a concert to present such works suitably. They require extended time to understand them, which is why we are so grateful for this Yellow Barn experience.”

Eggert is alluding to the scale of the Schubert and Feldman quartets.

“They both are huge works,” Eggert says. “The one is an old piece by a master of the early 19th century classical canon, Schubert’s G Major String Quartet. Although a string quartet, it is of epic proportions. Schubert wrote the work when he was developing his skills to take on large symphonic works.

“G Major String Quartet is a precursor to his celebrated symphonies like his Great and Unfinished, both of which were written later. The building blocks of the quartet have really big arches. It was a radical piece for its time.”

Even today, the G Major is treated with deference.

Says Eggert, “When we tell other musicians that we are planning to perform G Major in concert, the response is often, “Wow! That’s big stuff.’”

In contrast, the second work Lassus will perform is a piece of classical music by a modern master, Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2.

“We decided to present both Schubert and Feldman’s works together because each for its time is challenging music,” Eggert says. “But there is also a more intimate connection. In a German seminar, Feldman once said, ‘There’s an aspect of my attitude about being a composer that is like mourning. Say, for example, the death of art ... something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me.’”

Eggert find this to be a particularly shocking statement because Feldman notoriously didn’t like the classical repertory.

“You could say he distrusted the solemn reverence around that classic canon of music,” Eggert says. “Feldman was a bit of a punk.”

A major figure in 20th-century music, Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was a pioneer of indeterminate music, an approach to composing in which some aspects of a musical work are left open to chance or to the interpreter’s free choice, a development associated with the experimental New York School of composers including John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown. Feldman’s later works, after 1977, begin to explore extremes of duration.

“Feldman’s approaches to time, form and motif were unusual, creating a structure on which he could build pieces that would last from three to six hours,” explains Eggert. “Feldman would write long washes of music that you might call anti-dramaturgical.

“His works often seemed to have no beginning, middle or end. Some might find this a little static, for his motifs didn’t speak or relate to each other the way they do in traditional music. Feldman certainly wanted to move his music away from the standards of tension, release, and catharsis that characterize most 19th century classical works.”

Turning antiquity on its head

Eggert situates Feldman as part of the 1960s New York school of classical anti-music.

“His music doesn’t communicate in the traditional sense,” he explains. “Feldman wanted to turn the classic ideals of antiquity upside down on its head.”

Eggert believes that Feldman’s music has much structure, but not in the way most works of classical music do.

“When listening and playing Feldman’s music, you lose your sense of normal time relations,” he says.

Speaking of time, what is it like to play or even listen to a six-hour-long piece of music?

“We’ll find out,” Eggert says, with a laugh. Feldman’s monumental work requires extraordinary endurance on the part of the musicians; quartets have backed out of performances because the physical pain became too much.

“A work so daunting in this particular way is a new experience for us,” he adds. “We have spoken to people who have played the work and gotten tips from experts.”

One thing Lassus does not expect is that their audience will sit quietly in a concert hall for 5 1/2 hours and then politely clap.

“The phenomenon of sitting still through an entire concert was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Eggert. “Audiences were inculcated to approach music with reverence. That is certainly not true for all time or all cultures.

“Take, for instance, India, where traditionally you might find a thousand listeners to some music-making, each coming and going at will. It is a whole radically different approach to performing and listening.”

In collaboration with Candle in the Night owner Larry Simons, the Currier Center concert space will be filled with Turkish rugs surrounded by wooden benches, inviting audience members to sit or lie down on the floor. The idea is to transform the Currier Center into a meditative space.

An adjacent room will be designed for rest and hydration, allowing listeners to take breaks without interrupting their experience.

“There should be something magical about this environment,” says Eggert. “We hope people will feel free to take off their shoes or lie on the floor if they want. They can come up close to our performing space. I for one would not mind if someone sat down at my feet as I play.”

‘Not our first crazy project’

Given their scale and complexity, either Schubert’s G Major String Quartet or Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 would be suitable for an evening’s performance alone, but Lassus insists on doing both works at the upcoming concert. Why?

“I guess we’re just masochists,” Eggert says, laughing. “But seriously, we do like pushing ourselves with challenging programs. This is not our first crazy project.”

Lassus’ other unusual programs have reflected their curiosity for historically informed performance practice, contemporary composition, and franco-flemish renaissance polyphony.

At the upcoming concert, Lassus will perform the Schubert work first.

“We want our audience to learn to take us seriously, so we are giving them a good old classic work to start things off,” Eggert says. “After that, they might be willing to give us a chance and the benefit of the doubt to try the second, more-challenging work on the program.”

Eggert admits that the Feldman’s piece is “definitely atonal.”

“Atonal can scare a lot of listeners off,” he says. “Audiences have the superficial association that atonal music is ugly, but that need not always be the case. Feldman’s quartet is an atonal work that is breath-takingly gorgeous, life-changingly beautiful.”

Eggert feels that atonal is simply a different kind of experience than tonal music.

“Tonal music is like a solar system where everything moves around a center, like gravity pulls everything to the ground,” he says. “Atonal music has a looser orientation. It’s as if we are out in space, not exactly sure what is up or down. Space could be a terrifying disorientation. Similarly, what at first seems to us ugly in atonal music may just be uncertainty. Musically we need to learn to float in space.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #535 (Wednesday, November 6, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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