Certain occasions lead one to the suspicion -- artistically, at least -- that the second half of the 20th century does not measure up to the first. One took place yesterday when the Boston Composers String Quartet -- violinists Clayton Hoener and Sue Rabut-Cartwright, violist Scott Woolweaver and cellist Reinmar Seidler -- performed an afternoon of string quartets in the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore series at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
First on the program was Pozzi Escot's "Jubilation," which was written in 1991 to help celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New England Conservatory. The reason to celebrate that "Jubilation" gave this listener was its duration: its four movements lasted about 10 minutes. As her association with IRCAM-Paris and Darmstadt suggests, and as her music declares, Escot is a member of the "old" avant-garde. Her music buzzed with sonic information -- little of which sounded worthy of attention -- in an extremely compressed time frame.
Next came Robert Kyr's 1992 String Quartet No. 2 ("Of Time and Remembrance"). Much of this was fun to listen to: a lovely melody for the viola over cello tremolos; some imaginative sonic effects produced by knocking against the bellies of the instruments; virtuosic repeated notes and passages on open strings. But this didn't go far enough in a rather long piece. The listener began to feel he was listening to an etude on open strings and that the proper sponsor for music sounding like a hoedown was the Baltimore Folk Music Society, not the Chamber Music Society.
Bernard Rands' Strinq Quartet No. 2 (1994), which opened the concert's second half, was noble-sounding and emotionally generous. Its high point was its dramatic second and final movement. As the composer himself remarked in a program note, the drama here consisted in the manner -- raucous and clamoring -- in which the three higher-pitched instruments gradually usurp the prominent place established by the cello with an opening of almost Biblical gravity.
Even the fine Rand quartet, however, was diminished by the overwhelming work that followed it: Bartok's String Quartet No. 6 (1939). In its markings -- "mesto" or "sad" precedes each movement -- and in its sound, there is little doubt that this work is a commentary on the pestilence that was about to put out the lights in Europe. It is savage, tragic and even funny music -- though the mirth of the final movement's "burletta" or "little joke" is a grinning death's head. The Boston Composers String Quartet did a fine job articulating its passionate sense of depair, making it an affecting conclusion to a well-played concert.