By Ava Figliuzzi
Since its formation in 1995, the Austin-based Miró Quartet has been committed to education and innovative, international performances at the world’s finest venues. They hold residencies at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Ore., Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival in Washington state, and the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas. The Miró became the first ensemble to receive an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2005.
On the evening of Feb. 22, Miró was joined by renowned clarinetist David Shifrin at The Society of The Four Arts for a program inspired by the life of the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman. Shifrin, currently on faculty at the Yale School of Music, previously served as principal clarinetist with the Cleveland Orchestra (in addition to appearances with numerous other major orchestras). His chamber and solo recordings have been Grammy-nominated and received countless other accolades.
Wednesday evening’s program was part of the Miró Quartet’s larger archive project, launched around their 25th anniversary. Their project aimed to produce programs modeled on those from early 20th-century string quartets. Miró’s historically informed programs pay homage to their predecessors while modernizing how string quartets traditionally present repertoire in the most recent generations.
This tribute blended genres while maintaining a natural cohesiveness. David Schiff’s Swing Arrangements, second on the program, showed the players’ amusing chemistry and comfort with non-classical playing. The short collection of three tunes included Goodman’s own “Smooth One,” followed by Jack King’s “How Am I to Know” and Henry Lodge’s “Temptation Rag.”
The danger of inserting swing or ragtime into a traditional recital experience is the risk of sounding stylistically contrived, especially if the arrangement misses the mark. Any worries I may have started with were set aside by Shifrin’s suave tone and mischievous string interjections. Schiff’s arrangement balanced the quintet’s voices, and the upper three strings graciously avoided sounding too square. First violinist Daniel Ching flaunted his chopping (percussive bow crunches) in “Temptation Rag,” while cellist Joshua Gindele manufactured an excellent impression of an upright bass.
Miró chose to open the program with a piece inspired by a 1946 collaboration between Goodman and the Stuyvesant String Quartet. The quartet’s cellist, Alan Shulman, composed Rendezvous as an alternative to Goodman’s suggestion of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet (appearing on the second half of Wednesday’s program). Shulman’s concise work encapsulated Goodman’s genre-crossing career with a solemn, late-Romantic or early-modernist opening evolving into an uptempo swing with Shifrin taking over.
As with the Swing Arrangements, Shifrin’s tempos and energy were organic while moving between Rendezvous‘s bluesy and fast swing sections.
The first impression from the strings’ opening was an incredibly satisfying blend, thanks to the familiarity and refinement from Miró’s last two-and-a-half decades together. Second violinist Will Fedkenheuer sat on the outside (often where a violist or cellist sits), facing Ching; this beautifully prevented balance issues that usually occur from the second violin having to penetrate the first violin’s sound from both a spatial and register disadvantage.
Ching displayed a unique vibrato, relying more on the hand and wrist than the arm. While I appreciated this style’s vigor and speed in the first half, I found it surprising that he maintained it for Mozart in the second half. Too intense oscillations, especially when not sustained for the whole duration of notes or phrases in Mozart, can sound distracting or erratic.
Peter Schickele’s five-movement work, Spring Forward, ended the first half. Written for Shifrin and Miró in 2014, the ensemble sounded at home and playfully spun a cinematic narrative. Schickele emerged as the evening’s unexpected high point. Notorious for musical parodies written under the name P.D.Q. Bach, Schickele’s engaging and idiosyncratic “serious” writing was a pleasant surprise.
The first movement, “Reawakening,” opened with a cheerful pizzicato texture punctuated by a rhapsodic clarinet line eventually joined by the violins — like the opening of a movie in the countryside. In each piece on the evening’s program, Fedkenheuer and Ching complemented each other well in tone and rhythmic drive. Rather abruptly, a New Age jazz canon emerged, starting with the cello. At times, this movement was busy and challenging to follow a primary voice, but the moments of calm and clarity were beautifully done.
The wandering “Cantilena” echoed contemporary minimalist composers but had spurts of bluegrass and embraced dissonance. In one instance, violist John Largess’s tone was utterly indistinguishable from Shifrin’s, a purity out of reach for most violists.
A dreamy Scherzo movement had a cinematic feel similar to the first, with a few psychotic moments of swirling violin stretti bouncing off of glissando pizzicati in the cello. Most importantly, the ensemble kept a down-to-earth, personable feeling that suited the Schickele. When an ensemble allows this enjoyment, the audience can feel they can allow themselves the same.
A brief interlude with unsettling harmonies led us into the fifth and final movement — a folksy, bustling dance with charming melodies well-executed by all members.
After intermission came the Mozart Clarinet Quintet (in A major, K. 581). As mentioned in previous comments on Rendezvous, Ching’s vibrato, especially in the Allegro, seemed too dressed up in contrast with the tranquility and resolve of Shifrin’s phrases, which he matched better to the Allegro‘s subdued undertones. Gindele’s lyricism was allowed a well-deserved spotlight, and Shifrin’s long phrases in the Larghetto movement were absolute heaven. The Allegretto con variazoni opening was brilliant between Ching and Fedkenheuer and featured a lovely solo from Largess.
An encore arrangement of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” closed out an evening of serious musicians making sure not to take themselves too seriously. The chemistry between Miró and Shifrin was a pleasure to experience live.