O’Riley and the Miró Quartet: “We Agree!”

By Manasi Vydyanath

The concert last Friday at Mandel Hall was an eloquent portrayal of the sheer importance of artistic dissent. Christopher O’Riley and three members of the Miró quartet (violinist Sandy Yamamoto was unable to perform, due to illness) began the evening in such consumate technical and aesthetic concurrence that they transformed expressive accord into interpretive homogeneity. They commenced with Mozart’s piano quintet in E flat, a piece reminiscent of the Perdita in A Winter’s Tale; a captivating little vignette that intersperses bursts of passionate lyricism and tempests with charming arguments and brilliant sallies. The emphasis of the work is upon the elegance that form can bestow upon content, in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s scintillating, caricatured salons, where the virtuosic epigram creates philosophical merit ex nihilo. As Wilde might have said, the E-flat quartet lives in constant dread of being taken seriously.

O’Riley and the players of the Miró quartet were both infinitely more suited to the grand, impassioned gestures of Romanticism, where fate and bravura engage in duels that determine the destiny of the universe. They attempted to infuse those fiery scalic passages—the fermatas wrought of breathless anticipation, the sweeping arpeggiation and the extended dynamic palette into the Mozart—causing it to disintegrate under the pressure. Whenever one of the artists suggested a certain interpretive gesture, an accent or a dynamic, the others would promptly follow, and embrace the change so thoroughly as to exclude the very possibility of dialectic engagement with the piece. And since the aesthetic inclinations of all four performers were so similar, similar sorts of things kept being suggested. Everyone did the same thing, and group polarization resulted. They appeared to be trying to project a darker, more Romantic side of Mozart’s piece, but due to the fact that they agreed on everything and were too much alike in terms of predilections—and proclivities—they overdid everything. O’Riley performed the higher range of the Mozart piece in excellent form, but tended to wallow in Lisztian articulation in his middle and low range. And the strings followed him wherever he went.

Their rendition of the second movement of this piece was altogether a curious affair. Structurally, the movement is a loose set of variations in which melodic ideas are fitfully explored, a series of whimsical musical syllogisms which remind one of Alice’s journey through the looking glass: first in a train, then a shop, then a row-boat with the sheep as the only constant in a morphing, uncertain universe.

O’Riley and the Miró cut the causal links between the fragments by elongating their fermatas and varying the tempo, dynamics, and enunciation too much from section to section. Each fragment was individually very beautiful, but unlinked to what came before or after. Once again, this was a result of the excessive artistic suitability of the players. Everyone mimicked everyone else, and there was no contrasting viewpoint to attain balance or even to just give us an alternative take on things. There was no room to pull back and maintain consistency through the movements. Without dissent, the ensemble’s interpretation became erratic and ineffective, though brilliantly executed. An idea, however original, becomes a truism if it is not challenged.

The next piece on the program was the Serenade in C major by Ernst Dohnányi, whose name has unfortunately been eclipsed in history by the fame of his grandson, the renowned conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. He was a late Romantic composer, better known as a mentor and champion of other composers and performers like Bartók and Kodály. His style is Brahmsian, rejecting the Wagnerian wave coruscating through the compositional circles of his time. His music presents an aspect of quirky modernism, suffused with allusions to an idealized past—in his themes, his cadences and instrumental coloring—which he will turn around and parody, mock, and develop into something utterly unexpected. Dohnányi’s music folds into itself, and interpolates its themes instead of extrapolating them as Mahler’s does. He was a miniaturist of great power, and his serenade is a set of inventions that deconstruct his own thematic statements into their innermost essence, uncovering the sarcasm implicit in a Romanza, and the romanticism in a scherzo.

The performance of this work was wonderful, and the reason for this functions as a proof by negation to my previous analysis of excessive agreement. Violinist Daniel Ching set himself up against the group as a whole, always remaining slightly out of phase with the mood of the piece. This was particularly evident in the Romanza; the O’Riley and the lower strings maintained an incessant stream of derision and ridicule, with which the first violin acquiesced initially. Toward the end, however, it underwent a temperamental metamorphosis—the last chord of the Romanza marked the decisive turning point, in which the violin uttered a note of heartbreaking sweetness against the grainy backdrop. To quote Susannah Clarke, a note that seemed to be “a beautiful shade of blue, but then again, not exactly blue, it was more like lilac…not exactly lilac either, since it had a tinge of grey in it…the color of heartache.”

Throughout the scherzo which followed, Ching’s violin kept looking back in nostalgia and inexpressible longing, its tone much more mellow than the lower strings and the acerbic piano, arguing with them, setting itself in harmonic and thematic opposition, debating the point, wrangling, causing the music to move through strange modulations and finally, after a heated debate, rejoining their position. Ching’s interpretation of his part was brilliant; it was designed to exhibit the contrast inherent in the music to the maximum possible extent. The dialectic engagement made the music superbly effective, as the audience had two alternate viewpoints with which to regard the music. Paradoxically, the fact that the performers did not agree immediately resulted in greater aesthetic cohesion. Debate made the interpretation infinitely stronger, for each side was forced to justify its take on matters, resulting in a better argument.

The concert closed with Brahms’ piano quartet in G minor—a work of dramatic, even violent, contrasts. The dark, lilting minor first theme is contrasted with a sparkling, Mozartean counter theme that is explored, inverted, and ultimately integrated. The Miró quartet and O’Riley surpassed themselves here, with dazzling feats of logical and emotional integration—the players set up a powerful contrast between the two themes—their rubato was perfectly gauged, and the manner in which they allowed this dissension to work itself out and culminate in a tour-de-force- merge in the last movement was exquisite. Their technique was flamboyant, they were utterly in their stylistic element, and, finally, they were comfortable enough to argue with each other. The performers went from being a collective to a creative collaboration. Watching the process unfold in real time was mesmerizing. The audience was given a glimpse of the kind of fusion that usually takes place in the privacy of a rehearsal space: four players turning into a vibrant, controversial, energetic artistic entity.