On Wednesday, Sept. 26, four young women visited the University of New Orleans (UNO) Recital Hall to transfix a 100-some audience with striking, modern classical music. Before the concert began, department of music chair Charles Taylor informed the audience that they were about to hear a “very, very energetic and highly expressive concert.”
Ariana Kim and Miho Saegusa were on violins, Ayane Kozasa was on viola, and Karen Ouzounian was on cello. At times, Saegusa also used a melodica.
The talented quartet opened the evening with “Carrot Revolution,” a piece by Gabrielle Smith, who once read the anonymous quotation, “The day will come when a single, freshly observed carrot will start a revolution,” and said, “I knew immediately that my piece would be called ‘Carrot Revolution.’”
Smith wrote the piece in 2015 for the Aizuri Quartet, saying that she “envisioned the piece as a celebration of that spirit of fresh observation and of new ways of looking at old things, such as the string quartet.”
”Carrot Revolution” began with many unorthodox means of creating sounds with the instruments, including dragging and plucking the strings and hitting the bodies of the instruments. The music thrummed like a wordless rock concert, the only consistent aspect of the piece being the driving beat itself. The musicians often swayed and jolted with their instruments, dancing with the unusual music.
Toward the center of the work, the music dimmed and grew introspective, but eventually regained energy. The strings zipped, the piece ended and the audience clapped and whooped.
Said composer Smith, “The piece is a patchwork of my wildly contrasting influences and full of strange and unexpected juxtapositions and intersecting planes of sound.”
After a tuning interlude of about five minutes, the women returned to the stage with “Blueprint” by Caroline Shaw.
The Aizuri Quartet are named after “aizuri-e,” a style of Japanese woodblock printing that uses a blue ink. Said Shaw, “‘Blueprint’ [also] takes its title from this beautiful blue woodblock printing tradition as well as from that familiar standard architectural representation of a proposed structure: the blueprint.”
Shaw had intended for the piece to be a sort of “blueprint” of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6.
“This piece began its life as a harmonic reduction — a kind of floor plan,” she stated.
The work had an urgent, sharp beginning that echoed Beethoven’s more dramatic side, and it continued with a steady pace. Then a plucky, bubbly conversation between the instruments arose. If “Carrot Revolution” was running, “Blueprint” was skipping along.
A continuous, arpeggiating melody in the background added constant motion for a while behind the hubbub, and then the instruments fell quiet, with only one clock-like, plucking voice to break the silence. Then followed a low, declining sound, like the gears of a music box slowing down and falling apart. All this was followed by something familiar, and in the music could be heard something indeed like Beethoven’s work.
Suddenly, the piece swept into a rushed flurry, and just as suddenly, it fell silent. The musicians gave a flippant two plucks on their instruments, and the piece was over.
The piece is the namesake for the Aizuri Quartet’s debut album “Blueprinting,” which went on a pre-release sale at that night’s concert.
Said cellist Ouzounian, “[Shaw] peppers her piece with all these [funny] instructions for us.” A line of music might have the note “stoic, like a marble bust,” or “Quaker meeting vibe.” At this revelation, the audience laughed uproariously.
“RIPEFG,” the third piece of the night, involved a non-string instrument: the melodica. The melodica is a wind instrument, but it looks like a small keyboard with a mouthpiece emerging from one end. It is handheld, like a clarinet, but the black and white keys clearly delineate how notes are made. This is an instrument popular in music education and the piece’s inspiration, Ethan Frederick Greene, “liked to demonstrate his compositional ideas [on] the melodica” said violist Kozasa.
Violinist Saegusa took on the task of learning how to play the instrument for this piece. “It definitely brought some unexpected issues,” she said on stage, acknowledging that a high-altitude concert in Colorado challenged her lungs. “As a violin player, I never think much about my breath.”
“RIPEFG” stands for “Rest in Peace, Ethan Frederick Greene,” and it was written by Yevgeniy Sharlat.
“In the midst of composing this piece, I lost someone who meant a great deal to me — my former student at the University of Texas, fellow composer, dear friend, deep thinker, maverick artist, and a real mensch,” said Sharlat, speaking of Greene.
The piece had two unnamed movements, the first of which began with a whining ruckus.
Kozasa had mentioned that “there are a lot of world elements to the piece,” and several melodic influences from the East could indeed be clearly distinguished. They didn’t last long, but they were beautiful.
The second movement began with what sounded like Kim trying to tune her violin by plucking. The beginning was slow, almost apprehensive, with plucking that combined into what seemed like raindrops in a drizzle. Throughout the movement, Saegusa had to switch between her violin and the melodica.
Here, the sounds were those which some may never have imagined could come from string instruments. The piece developed into a violent, persistent passion, including Eastern melodies, then changed into a pure, extremely high-pitched harmony. This found its way into a silence that felt as if the piece had driven the audience furiously to, and left it abandoned in, the middle of a vast, cold, windy steppe.
The entire audience applauded heartily.
“I so wish Ethan could have heard ‘RIPEFG,’” wrote Sharlat in the program. “He would know exactly what to say about it.”
After an entertaining, funny raffle ticket drawing during the intermission, “LIFT” finished the evening. The piece was written by Paul Wiancko, whom Kim called a “dear friend.”
“He has a really interesting way of composing,” said Kim. Wiancko does not carefully theorize about rhythms and harmonies, writing down notes, trying them out, and then reworking them. Instead, “he improvises and then writes it down,” said Kim.
She also noted that when a piece is too difficult to be performed, musicians usually have the ability to refuse a piece. “We can’t do that with Paul, because he has already played it.”
The work has three parts, the last of which bears the note “Glacial – Maniacal – Lift.”
“In the middle [of the piece], there’s a surprise attack,” Kim told the audience. The entire work, she declared, was “a musical exploration of joy.”
The ending, as the third movement’s note might have hinted, really was crazy.
The standing ovation at the end of the concert was extensive and emphatic.
Taylor informed the audience that the University of New Orleans’ Musical Excursions series, which occurs throughout every academic year, would have eight concerts this season, featuring “up-and-coming artists, unusual repertoire, and ensembles that don’t usually make it to New Orleans.”
He made sure to thank the various sponsors of Musical Excursions, including the UNO Student Government Association, WWNO, the Harper Family Foundation, The Maison Dupuy, Muriel’s, Provost Mahyar Amouzegar, President John Nicklow, and College of Liberal Arts Dean Kim Martin Long.