Down in the windowless world beneath Meyerhoff Symphony Hall one morning this week, four string players rehearsed in the best spot they could find - the empty men's locker room. Something about the stark, impersonal ambience seemed just right for a group of classical musicians playing the blues.
As the cello laid down a steady beat, the violins took turns digging into a call-and-answer prison song; the viola wailed its response. Such earthy sounds might not be normally associated with members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. But these four musicians were exploring the idioms of this quintessentially American style as part of their sideline - the Atlantic String Quartet, which was founded seven years ago and has performed widely in Baltimore and Washington. On Sunday at Towson's Central Presbyterian Church, the ensemble will give the area premiere of Larry Hoffman's String Quartet No. 1: The Blues, on a program with works by Beethoven and Schubert.
The Baltimore-born composer attended the recent rehearsal, intently following every note and nuance. "I feel really privileged to work with such fine musicians in my own hometown," said Hoffman, who sometimes jumped up from his seat and crouched close to the action, his foot tapping along, one hand conducting a bit. He asked for faster speed here, a softer volume there, a clean, clear beat throughout.
"This guy is picky," violinist Greg Mulligan said with a laugh. But it was evident that the players respected the pointers, quickly adjusting tone and technique to accommodate the requests, or countering with alternate suggestions.
Jazz and classical are not entirely strange bedfellows. George Gershwin first coupled them to sensational effect nearly 80 years ago with the Rhapsody in Blue - not a rhapsody in blues, rather a work propelled by jazz rhythms and spiced by the occasional "blue" note. Blues, with its standard, four-chord harmony and 12-bar structure, is a whole species within the jazz genre. At first glance, the blues would seem entirely alien to the classical realm, but William Grant Still proved otherwise when he incorporated some of the style into his 1931 Afro-American Symphony.
Hoffman, 56, doesn't use the blues for occasional coloring or effect in his String Quartet No. 1; he makes it the raison d'etre. The piece premiered in Washington in 2001 and garnered strongly positive reactions from audiences and the press. Such reactions also greeted Hoffman's Blues for Harp, Oboe and Cello a few years earlier, which was recorded by members of the Cleveland Orchestra.
"I feel intimate with the blues," Hoffman said. "I was playing it before I could read music. American roots music is so profound. It made a deep impression on me from an early age."
In his 20s, Hoffman played guitar in folk and blues festivals, interacting with such blues greats as guitarist Skip James and harmonica player Sonny Terry. He went on to study jazz with the late Dennis Sandole, John Coltrane's mentor. Rivaling those strong influences on Hoffman's musical development was a long-dead German composer, Johannes Brahms. "I heard Brahms Fourth [Symphony]," Hoffman said, "and that turned my whole head around. I hadn't really heard classical music before; it wasn't played at home when I was growing up. But I just knew after I heard that symphony what I had to do."
Hoffman took the classical plunge, earning degrees in music theory and composition at the Peabody Institute and later serving on its faculty. He didn't abandon his first love; he produced blues albums and wrote extensively on the history of the blues. But he also found a way to fuse his musical passions.
"I am trying to bring folk music into concert repertoire," he said. "It is so under-represented now, even looked down upon in some circles. It would be wonderful if concert music reflected the pride and depth of American roots music." He has just finished composing a blues-influenced cello work; he wants to write a blues piece for orchestra next, if he can get a commission.
In his string quartet, Hoffman does not just handle the blues elements assuredly, but exploits the string instruments in a knowing manner. The music takes turns toward Stravinsky and Bartok, with angular lines and dissonant, aggressively punctuated chords (marked "Like hammer striking rock" in the score). Everything fits into a clear-cut, symmetrical structure, though, unified by the steady blues pulse.
"How often do you get to work with a living composer?" violinist Greg Mulligan said when the rehearsal was over. "It was great having him there to let me know where I need to play out more." The musicians also found out that Hoffman wanted cellist Bo Li's playing to be "felt more than heard," which came as something of a surprise. "In a normal string quartet, we need a heavier bass," violinist Rebecca Nichols said, "so we wouldn't have known that it wasn't right."
No improvisation is called for in Hoffman's quartet, but a certain freedom of expression is essential. Violist Christian Colberg seemed particularly comfortable with that freedom. He even felt free enough to alter the score slightly, to help make a few things easier or more effective. "I'm changing the notes here," he said to Hoffman at one point. "If I don't like it, I'll tell you," the composer said, "even if it's in the performance."
Chances are, Hoffman will find no reason to interrupt the concert on Sunday - or sing the blues afterward.
What: Atlantic String Quartet
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Central Presbyterian Church, 7308 York Road, Towson