Reprinted from Deseret News
Monday, April 26, 1999
by Rick Mortensen, Deseret News music critic
ABRAMYAN STRING QUARTET, Cathedral of the Madeleine; Sunday evening, April 25; one performance only.
Rarely does the world premiere of a piece receive such an enthusiastic response from both the musical elite and the general public as Phillip Bimstein’s quartet “Refuge” did Sunday night.
It engaged and captured the audience even more than the Beethoven “Serioso” String Quartet (No. 11) and Debussy String quartet in G which surrounded it on the Abramyan String Quartet’s program.
Based on the Terry Tempest Williams book of the same name, “Refuge” used recordings of Williams reading her book aloud on top of a sublime string quartet. The music — in a “retro-classical” language with elements of minimalism — was at all times the servant of the text, accentuating and clarifying its meaning.
The first movement, “Desert” captured the elegant perfection of its subject without self-consciousness. Underneath stark placidity was the slightly unsettled movement of an active mind.
“Silence” had a more serious, contemplative character. Its hopeful sonorities captured Williams’ line “if we fill our lives with silence we will live in hope.” It also subtly portrayed the “languages” of wind, water and wings with different rhythmic and dynamic effects.
The next movement, “Rabbits” reflected the natural rhythms of the Shoshone language in catchy pizzicato passages. Bimstein captured the hope and childlike wonder of communion with nature, as well as the great sense of mystery.
“Birds,” the most overtly minimalist movement, captured the excitement of birds in flight. The text went from a catalog of birds found at the Great Salt Lake, to a prayer to the birds to a repetition of lines found in the “Desert” movement, and the music got progressively more frenetically joyful arriving at a sense of closure.
The Beethoven had a wide dynamic range and subtlety in the individual phrases. The first movement’s sense of excitement was partially due to the Abramyan’s seamless synergy and partially to their organic interpretation. The second movement was soulful and sweet, while the third’s forcefulness was not forced. It grew naturally into the gentler calmer moments. The fourth displayed a passionate sense of pleading and exciting feel for texture.
The Debussy was playful, witty and flowing with lush sonorities, but after the Bimstein, it seemed somewhat of a step backward.