Hausmann Quartet’s Adventurous Haydn Voyage with Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ and a Stephen Prutsman Premiere

Although September tends to be a quiet month on San Diego’s classical musical calendar, on Sunday, September 16, the Hausmann Quartet boldly set sail on the on the next leg of its Haydn Voyages at the San Diego Maritime Museum’s Berkeley. Well aware that this intrepid ensemble’s traversal of the entire Haydn quartet repertory could border on the pedantic, from the outset Hausmann has wisely complemented its enthusiastic accounts of Haydn with challenging contemporary works—a piece, for example, by Thomas Adès, Tina Tallon, or Ana Sokolović—and sadly overlooked works by modernist greats of the last century such as Ruth Crawford Seeger or George Antheil.

Hausmann Quartet: (from left) Alex Greenbaum, Angela Choong, Isaac Allen, Bram Goldstein [photo (c) Samantha Zauscher]

Pairing of such different musical styles does more than provide contrast to the program, however. For contemporary audiences, Haydn’s music has both familiarity and the patina of a bygone era, but by bringing new music to its audiences, Hausmann is replicating that surprise and freshness that Haydn’s listeners experienced when they heard his quartets for the first time.

And Sunday’s program provided a windfall of surprise and satisfaction with the premiere of Stephen Prutsman’s quartet “30: An American Kaleidoscope for String Quartet” and a thrilling reprise of Steve Reich’s 1988 “Different Trains,” as well as two charming English Renaissance gems and Haydn’s Quartet No. 45 in A Major, Op. 55/1. As Hausmann’s resident musicologist and affable program commentator Derek Katz noted, this program neatly summarized 500 years of composing for string quartets.

Commissioned for the Hausmann Quartet by a generous couple to celebrate their 30th anniversary, Prutsman’s cheeky composition creates a collage of music heard on the car radio when these two patrons took an adventurous cross-country trip exactly 30 years ago. Prutsman augmented the four string players with a recorded sound source of quickly changing digital bites of all kinds of American music from pop to gospel to bluegrass to traditional folk projected from speakers mounted around the acoustic performers. At times the composer had the instruments expand on the recorded material, while elsewhere they charted their own edgy riffs.

In the rush of Prutsman’s busy, intriguing tapestry, on first hearing I was tempted to simply “name that tune,” which proved daunting inasmuch as my recollection of the popular hits of 1988 approaches zero. When I checked online for 1988’s most favored pop selections, I dimly recognized only one title among the top 30 pieces, so the allusions to hit tunes the composer wove in his work from 30 years ago remained mysterious to this listener. But I happily noted a line from the old revival hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and complete verses of John Jacob Niles’ folk-like Christmas carol “I Wonder as I Wander,” played as a solo with haunting simplicity by cellist Alex Greenbaum. “Autumn Leaves,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” a Stephen Foster ballad, and “Over the Rainbow” caught my ear and just as quickly vanished. In a short verbal introduction Prutsman gave prior to the performance, he said he chose to include some words from President Trump to represent the contemporary era of his “American Kaleidoscope.” I suppose every good composition requires a certain amount of dissonance to sharpen its focus.

Like Henryk Górecki’s earlier Third Symphony, Reich’s “Different Trains” achieved a widespread popularity in the last decade of the 20th century virtually unknown to music written by classical composers after World War II. Requiring extensive recorded materials—including train whistles, sirens and string quartet music—to interact with the live performers, “Different Trains” contrasts the train rides the very young Reich took with his governess between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942 as he traveled to divide his time between his divorced mother and father residing on opposite North American coasts with the train rides Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Europe were forced to take to concentration camps during those same years.

Before composing “Different Trains,” Reich was able to interview and record his elderly governess and an African-American Pullman porter from that era, as well a four Holocaust survivors then living in the United States. He used fragments of their spoken observations in the work’s recorded track and translated their speech patterns into musical notation to develop motifs for the live performers. This took Reich’s iconic minimalist style to a significantly higher degree of depth and complexity, and even though I have listened to my Nonesuch recording of “Different Trains” by the Kronos Quartet many times, I found myself unexpectedly profoundly moved by Hausmann’s searing live performance on Sunday.

This Haydn Voyage commenced with Haydn’s String Quartet in A Major, which Hausmann offered with suave, detailed phrasing that opened up its unfailing effervescence. It fell to first violinist Isaac Allen to do most of the heavy lifting, gracefully spinning out the composer’s lavish decorative embellishments, especially in the first movement Allegro. But it was the quartet’s tight yet buoyant ensemble that made the movements shimmer. In addition to violinist Allen and cellist Greenbaum, the other Hausmann Quartet players are violinist Bram Goldstein and violist Angela Choong.

John Taverner’s delicate, contrapuntal “In Nomine” was lifted by the composer from a section of a choral mass he had written in the early decades of the 16th century. A generation later, English court composer Christopher Tye fashioned a more elaborate homage to Taverner’s “In Nomine.” Both of these instrumental works would have been played most likely by a consort of viols, lighter sounding instruments than modern members of the violin family, so Hausmann played them quietly without vibrato, making them the refreshing sorbets between the rich main courses of Prutsman and Reich.

This concert by the Hausmann Quartet was presented on September 16, 2018, at the Maritime Museum of San Diego’s ferry Berkeley, 1492 North Harbor Drive, San Diego. The next Hausmann Quartet Haydn Voyage will be presented on November 11, 2018, at the same venue.

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