Third Angle New Music Ensemble gave the world its first listen to Portland composer Tomas Svoboda’s newest quartet, String Quartet no. 10, Opus 194. I’m not adept enough to enter it very deeply from that one encounter, but I liked its spirit and its invention. The program notes said that it is dedicated to violinist Lubomir Havlak of the Martinu Quartet, which recorded eight of Svoboda’s earlier quartets in Prague recently, and so “positive, energetic and playful with harmonic language of Bohemian flavor.” Which all seemed plausible at this first hearing.
Svoboda has Czech roots himself — his parents were Czech, though he was born in Paris in 1939 and spent the war years in Paris, returning to Prague in 1946 (according to his website), where he continued the musical studies begun in Boston. He was a sensation. He completed his first symphony at 16, and it was performed by the FOK Prague Symphonic Orchestra. He impressed the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu enough for him to leave his unfinished work to the young Svoboda at his death in 1959. Svoboda’s family moved to the U.S. in 1964, and he went to U.S.C., before coming to Portland State University in 1969 to teach. Here, he’s conducted a wide-ranging musical exploration, from brilliant and edgy small chamber works to a marimba concerto.
I bring up this all up simply to make the point that the occasion of a new quartet by Svoboda is a big deal and that I wish more of us had been at the Old Church last night to hear it: the rhythms that Hamilton Cheifetz dug out of his cello, the seemingly simple melodies that violinist Ron Blessinger started to toss off, only to have them complicate and deepen considerably, the sonorous trade-offs between cello and Brian Quincey’s viola that mirrored the activity in the upper registers between Blessinger and violinist Peter Frajola. Every time things started to get, well, obsessive and aggressive, Svoboda gave us an escape, a little musical gesture maybe, a touch of whimsy, even the crankier third movement. And the last movement, which started almost inaudibly with a melody that did indeed sound like a folk song, rolled into a full-throated barn dance that Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor would have been proud of. Terrific stuff.
The rest of the evening was engaging, too, mostly short pieces, all by contemporary composers (Chen Yi, Thomas Ades, Kevin Volans, Gabriela Lena Frank, Elena Kats-Chernin, Reza Vali), usually drawing from folk roots as well. After intermission, flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen, the new second flutist of the Oregon Symphony, arrived, and thanks to the variety of composers reminded us of how wide-ranging the flute can be. Her animation on stage was contagious, defining and accentuating and involving. It was fun to hear a flute so centrally located.
Right now, I’m listening to some Svoboda piano trios, specifically Phantasy, Opus 120. On this recording Svoboda is at the piano, Jitka Vlasankokva is on cello and Havlak on violin. It’s more melancholy than what I heard last night, though it spins into a very bright dance-y, almost ragtime, from time to time. I like its rhythm and its clarity, too. Svoboda doesn’t hide his musical ideas — melody or harmony or rhythm — and I like that a lot, the confidence of it, the willingness to consider a bouncy jazz rhythm or gesture and turn it to his own purposes. Unfortunately, I realize that I’m also destroying my memory of last night’s quartet. And that means I’m a prime candidate for the release of the CD!