ETHEL explores new music in Camden

Jan 21, 2013
Photo by: James Ewing Bay Chamber Concerts is bringing the acclaimed ETHEL string quartet to the Midcoast.

Camden — Bay Chamber Concerts will present the ETHEL string quartet, exploring the joys and beauties of new music, in its Present Beauty program Saturday, Feb. 2, at 7 p.m. at the Camden Opera House, Elm Street/Route 1.

Nationally recognized as one of the most exciting quartets around, ETHEL will explore the beauty of new classical music with pieces by a half dozen contemporary composers in a program ranging across spontaneity, minimalism, non-traditional sources and the driving, ethereal lyricism of one of America’s greatest living composers, Philip Glass.

Bay Chamber Artistic Director Manuel Bagorro describes ETHEL as an American chamber ensemble that embodies a new attitude to engaging audiences and commissioning new work.

“They constantly innovate through fascinating collaborations and thoughtful programming —Bay Chamber Concerts is absolutely delighted to be presenting a concert by this remarkable quartet as part of our Performing Arts Series,” Bagorra said.

Uninhibited and innovative in their music-making, ETHEL has premiered more than 50 new works by contemporary composers over the past three years. The first work on the Bay Chamber program, “To Whom It May Concern, Thank You” by Mark Stewart, features a new instrument in the string quartet — a daxaphone, something that looks like a wooden knife, is played with a stringed bow, and sounds, well, the audience will have to make up its own mind on that.

Answering innovation with tradition and not to be outdone, Dorothy Lawson’s cello sounds every bit as glorious as a cello can but is made of sparkling carbon fiber instead of wood. Local boat builders know the benefits of carbon fiber as the new material of choice for incredibly strong, lightweight boat hulls and spars, and here they can hear this remarkable material take flight in music. The family of the lead violinist, Ralph Farris, hails from Eastport so he knows the territory.

The second selection on the program shows off a wholly different approach in classical music. The musicians are given 24 musical modules, composed by Terry Riley, to reconstruct in performance however they want. This idea may sound like heresy in the classical world but of course is routine in jazz and blues and should be a lot of fun for the audience.

Glass has become somewhere of a revered historical fixture on the new music scene and has certainly been among the most prolific, including two groundbreaking revolutionary scores for his two powerful operas written in the 1970s, “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha.” ETHEL will present a suite in four parts arranged from Glass’s score for the 2002 movie “The Hours.”

The second half of the program reinforces ETHEL’s eclectic side. Composer Julia Wolfe’s “Early that summer” provides the quartet a chance to stretch its wings, with “a small occurrence early that summer” snowballing into something large and explosive. “Wed” by David Lang returns the program to the tragic, tense minimalism of “The Hours” but more astringent and less melodic than Glass. It recalls the true story of a wedding where the bride is on her deathbed, joyousness surrounded by an encroaching, inevitable darkness.

In the final work, ETHEL takes on a cultural import with a three-part composition by the fast-rising Asian-American composer Huang Rao. Rao’s String Quartet No. 2: The Flag Project features familiar Buddhist prayer flags and finger cymbals, taking the movements of three flags to construct an other-worldly meditation on Buddhist culture in the Himalayas.

Tickets are $35; $25 for those age 21 to 35; and $10 for those younger. For more information and tickets, visit Bay Chamber online at baychamberconcerts.org or call the box office at 236-2823. For more information about ETHEL, visit ethelcentral.org.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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