On March 21, in the Chapel of the Cross, the Ciompi Quartet presented an attractive free program consisting of Janácek’s Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) and the world premiere of the First String Quartet of Samuel Zyman (http://www.presser.com/composers/zyman.html [inactive 7/05]). The concert was sponsored by the family of Mark Furth, the dedicatee of the new work, written to celebrate his 50th birthday, two years ago. Zyman is currently a member of the faculty at Juilliard, where he was educated. His work-list is extensive, and he has benefited from numerous commercial recordings. The Mexican-born composer’s music, as demonstrated in his new Quartet (composed 2001-2), is skillfully wrought. There are strong influences from his native country and from other traditions. The work received a wonderful performance from our leading chamber music ensemble and was warmly received by the small but appreciative audience. In pre-performance remarks, Zyman noted that the attacks of 9/11 occurred during the composition of his work, parts of which understandably are, as he said, “intense and anguished.” (He also noted a measure of irony in the timing of the premiere, which came in the early days of yet another war.) The “syncopated Mexican rhythm” of the first movement would have been apparent even without his comments. In other places, some of Steve Reich’s strongest work is suggested; “Different Trains” came immediately to mind. The second movement, a profoundly stirring Adagio, apparently began as a reflection on the death of Furth’s father, but it became much more than that after 9/11…. At the core of this movement is an original melody that suggests Jewish liturgical music – it is so convincing that a friend said she recognized it – so one senses that the WWII agonies the Furth family (and countless others) suffered are also distilled in the score. The slow movement could well serve as an alternate to Barber’s ubiquitous work for quartet or string orchestra. The finale, which contains a fugal passage starting in the cello and, later, a poignant solo for the viola, increasingly expresses conflict and violence but ends with a recapitulation of the main themes. At the risk of condemning it with faint praise, one might say that Zyman’s First String Quartet is immediately user-friendly, but it is much more than that. Here’s hoping the CQ will encore this major work here soon and often and that other ensembles will also take it up.

The concert began with an equally fine reading of Janácek’s “Intimate Letters” (the name reflects the composer’s affair with a younger woman). This is also a welcome addition to the CQ’s repertoire, particularly since the foursome campaigned Janácek’s First Quartet (“Kreutzer Sonata”) several years ago, on its own and with additional music (for Carolina Ballet’s production) by J. Mark Scearce. The Second Quartet is a piece of awesome, non-stop dramatic power that reflects the same sort of intensely personal theatricality that has made this composer’s operas such great “discoveries” in the US in recent seasons. There is, here and there, a certain busy-ness, but it all comes together in a shimmering finale.