General 11-1-2004

Parallel Histories: The Borromeo Quartet Plays Jean Perreault’s “Exodus”

History, that ruin that politics leaves in its wake, was the burden of a fine concert at Weber Music Hall in Duluth.

From Eden to its loss, from night and fog to a radiant room: the Borromeo String Quartet concert at UMD’s Weber Music Hall Wednesday night covered great distances in time and space. I heard them play three pieces: Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major (Op. 64, No. 6), Jean Perreault’s Exodus, and Brahms’ String Quartet in A Minor (Op. 51, No. 2). I had attended specifically to hear Perreault’s work; he’s the director of the UMD Symphony as well as a composer, and I wanted to give the work of this Minnesota artist some attention.

Weber Music Hall, Cesar Pelli’s tiny weird building at UMD, was the setting. Peculiar in the extreme from the outside (many buildings are described as “phallic,” but this is the only one I know that looks pudendal), inside, its acoustics and even its visual aesthetics are exquisite. Holding only 350 people, most no further than about 50 feet from the stage, the Weber is both a gift to the gifted and, doubtless, a curse to the less-than-gifted: every whisper of sound is delivered, fresh, to the ear. The Borromeo’s mastery—their precision, tonal riches, and what seemed a telepathic intuition of each other’s intentions—was well suited to this little temple of clarity.

The Haydn was Edenic, music in a blessed state of origin. These musicians seemed to be hearing it for the first time, along with their audience. Its subtlety was in its clarity, its surfaces were all visible. The musicians would pass a phrase around their group as if it were a well-made and exquisite toy, delicate yet sturdy, ornamented in only the purest colors. It had a sense of humor that the performers relished, playing wittily with the expectations of a formal genre. It was music without dark memories, form that need refer to no prior form. It was a radiant performance of music uncursed by history.

Perreault’s Exodus, the next piece on the program, was written for the Borromeo, who premiered it in Boston, their home, almost exactly a year ago. A brief essay by the composer accompanied the program, explaining the themes of the piece, which was a kind of three-part tone poem about the experiences of refugees, people running from violence or desperate poverty. The essay went on to elucidate the nearly programmatic relation of the musical passages to the narrative of desperation, exile, and longing.

Perrault, who is Haitian, has more to say about the genesis of the piece on his website. When he was approached to do the commission, he said he wanted to tell a story, but not his own: “My story is the kind the media likes: raised in ‘the poorest country in the western hemisphere,’ studying classical music against all odds, having a very lucrative career, then securing an influential position in one of the finest universities in the state of Minnesota. Such is not the case for the millions of immigrants, not just the Haitians. They are forced to leave their country, some because of political persecution, but most for economic reasons. How can a mother or father just sit and watch while their own children go hungry day after day and just waste away?”

In contrast to the Haydn, this was music laden with memory—which seems to be often the case with current compositions in this era of reevaluation of traditions. Snippets of what seemed like movie music—storm at sea! waves! wind! —drifted through at one point in the first movement. It followed a sinuous violin line that seemed to touch lightly on both Caribbean and Jewish folk ballads. Sections of staccato scaffolding under these longing and wandering lines would give way to syncopation over pizzicato, and then some tender harmonies leading to percussive slapping and plucking of strings.

The second movement opens with a big cello line that, like parts of the first movement, implies but does not give melodic resolution. Then the movement enters into anthem-like chords in C major, which are undermined, at points, by the restless moving line from before. Unison passages bring it to its conclusion.

The third movement uses high romantic double stops and wrought emotion to construct a calling voice, the overstrained throat, the singer who must move one. Then it breaks into two parts: an undercurrent of mediating pattern, and the calmer singing voice above it. One notices then the single voice of the first violin, moving from dry pattern to lush song. Noticeable rhythmic structure comes and goes, along with unison scales and then frantic texture.

Memory, distance, loss, fragmentariness characterize this music in its relation to the history of music, as well as the life experiences that the music is trying to transmit. The bricolage of the composer mimics and mirrors the bricolage imposed on refugees, who must cobble together from whatever offers a whole and meaningful life.

The bracketing of Perrault’s Exodus by the Haydn and the Brahms seemed inspired, making the themes of history and memory more obvious. Where the Haydn may be “music with no memory,” of course the Brahms, one of the two string quartets that Brahms published, reviving what had been thought a moribund form, is music with all too much memory. It both harks back to early examples of the form and reinvents it in romantic style. It’s a kind of demonstration of the conflicts that memory must create in us. Sonorities moved from one emotion to another like cloud shadows racing on water, like the fleeting expressions of a face in thought. The A minor coasts sometimes into the ghost of C major, like past happiness recalled from a vantage of loss.

The three works together, then, evoked through the history of music the kind of themes that Perreault was pursuing in the histories of people. The smart-child clarity of the Haydn, his sunniness, was a backdrop that clearly outlined the postmodern assemblage of Exodus, which was in turn shaded and modeled by the heavy blissful sorrow of the Brahms. These resonances strengthened the considerable force of both the compositions themselves and the quartet’s musicianship. This was, from my amateur’s viewpoint, a most remarkable concert, and made me eager to hear more of Perreault’s work.

The Borromeo Quartet also participates in something called the “Living Archive,” a series of performance recordings that allows one to order custom CDs of performances that one has heard (or wished one had heard). To hear more about this program, or to order a recording of the performance discussed in this article, go to the Borromeo website by clicking the link below.