The Cassatt String Quartet



The Cassatt String Quartet

  1. Tina Davidson (b. 1952)

CASSANDRA SINGS (1988) (15:02)

  1. Julia Wolfe (b. 1958)

FOUR MARYS (1991) (13:01)

  1. Andrew Waggoner (b. 1960)

A SONG…(Strophic Variations for String Quartet) (1988) (10:43)

  1. Eleanor Hovda (b.1940)

LEMNISCATES (1988) (17:53)

  1. Daniel S. Godfrey (b. 1949)

INTERMEDIO (1986) (6:29)

The Cassatt String Quartet:

Muneko Otani, violin

Sunghae Anna Lim, violin

Michiko Oshima, viola

Anna Choloakian, cello

In the 19th century, the string quartet was the scene of comparatively few radical gestures or departures. Excepting the phenomenal late quartets of Beethoven, or perhaps precisely because of their awesome presence, composers of the Romantic era treated the form with a certain reverence and caution. Turn-of-the-century masters like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss avoided chamber music altogether, after some compulsory exercises in their student years. The future, it seemed lay elsewhere.

Then, a few years into the new century, all hell broke loose. In 1903, Charles Ives composed a Scherzo for String Quartet, subtitled “Holding Your Own, “ in which each player in the group adopted independent tonalities and rhythms. Toward the end of the same decade Arno0ld Schoenberg let the atonal cat out of the bag in the third and fourth movements of his String Quartet No. 2 and Bartok's violently dissonant middle-period quartets were not far behind. In the post-WWII music of Carter, Ligeti, Schelsi, and Lutoslawski, the string quartet became the site of the most astringent avant-garde experiments.

The compositions represented on this Cassatt Quartet program do not come up with a unanimous response to the quartet genre's divided history. The works by Tina Davidson, Andrew Waggoner, and Daniel Godfrey participate in the 20th-century continuum or mainstream that has it roots in the 19th, while Julia Wolfe and Eleanor Hovda mobilize some of the avant-garde techniques that have circulated since the Second World War. Yet all five pieces tell a story of tension and release, wandering and return, and some speak of tonality serves as a guiding light throughout. And they all have a sound-world of their own. Raising technique of one kind or another to the level of personal idiom.

Tina Davidson, a Philadelphia-based composer, wrote Cassandra Sings for the Kronos Quartet, employing dissonant harmonies that are richly suggestive of tonal centers in passing. The title refers both to the solitary prophetess of ancient Greece whose predictions were never believed, and to the composer's daughter. “I was thinking about the hope I had for her future and how it related to the past,” she has written. “For me the myth is to complete; Cassandra of old is overwhelmed and destroyed by the truth. My Cassandra is transformed by death, and born into a new time, this time, the time of my daughter - a time of telling the truth and being heard.” The work pens with an arresting, long-limbed melody on the cello, prologue to a propulsive, syncopated section marked “tense but resonant.” A fantastical stretch of ghostly effects ends in a chaotic, upward scuttling motion. After a sudden calm, the rapid figured motions slowly return, this time clear and affirmative: The work becomes joyous and open.

Julia Wolfe, the co-artistic-director of New York's Bang On A Can Festival, has designed the sound of her Four Marys expressly for this ensemble, which gave the premiere at the festival in 1991. “I thought a lot about the way the quartet plays - ho they breathe together, how they make music as if they are one organism.” she has written. The title takes its inspiration from mountain dulcimer music, with the title paying homage to a traditional Scottish tune performed by Jean Ritchie. Characteristic dulcimer sounds - the sliding motion of its melody string. Steady strum of its “drone” or accompaniment strings - are transformed into idiomatic string quartet language. An opening section of soft, sustained chords into which destabilizing glissandi are steadily insinuated is followed by a vigorously driving, dance-like middle section with a minimalist undertow. In conclusion held chords recalling the outset are allowed to retain their glowing calm, despite the persistence of slow sliding lines. The work was commissioned by the Koussevitzky foundation for the Cassatt Quartet.

Andrew Waggoner, Director of the Syracuse University School of Music, uses a harmonic idiom that seems dissonant and modernistic on first encounter and later proves to have a decided tonal bias, A Song…(Strophic Variations for String Quartet), also written for Cassatt, is rigorously derived from the slashing fortissimo figure of its first bar; a rich profusion of events ensues, including an exultantly stamping dance-like episode about halfway through (essentially in F Major) and a powerful sequence in which upward-striding unison figures alternate with massive chords of C and B major combined. Driving eighth-note rhythms create a surge of energy for the final section, whose rising melodic strain and stretto-like tuttis are not so much songful as operatic. The composer again had the Cassatt's particular sound in mind; “A Song.. is indelibly marked with the numen of their playing.”

Eleanor Hovda's Lemniscates, written originally for the Kronos Quartet, is the most technically complicated work on this program. The conventional language of rhythm and pitches gives way to an other-worldly zone dominated by harmonics and overtones. Hovda creates a whole new bowing technique: a figure-8 (indicated by the mathematical term of the title from the Latin Lemniscus meaning with hanging ribbons) in which the bow moves from the ordinary position to the fingerboard and to the bridge. This technique, combined with the continual use of harmonics (very light fingering, so that only overtones and not fundamental tones are produced), results in a continually shifting sound-texture composed not of notes but ghosts or “glints” of notes. At first this sonic space seems devoid of activity, inhabited only by static whispers of tone hanging in mid-air. But hints of passage-work slowly intrude - trills, tremolos, little chromatic figures, and arpeggiated patterns of overtones. The work's unexpected climax is an enormous, droning crescendo on tones of E.

Daniel Strong Godfrey's deft and brief Intermedio, closing the disc, is as distinct a contrast from the Hovda as you could wish: a work deeply indebted to European forms from earlier in the century, and even from the twilight of the last. The “con fuoco” introduction is aggressive and dissonant. But the splendid, swaying theme that soon emerges on the violin shows an obvious lust for plain tonality that is consummated in a fortissimo C-Major-ish passage halfway through the piece. After some tense back-and-forth argumentation, the theme and its propulsive accompaniment return even more emphatically, this time in G. The complex, forward-tumbling motion of that accompaniment results from a technique of “hocketing,” very challenging for the players, in which each rhythmic segment is handed form one instrument to another like a hot potato.

  • Alex Ross

Hailed as one of America's outstanding young ensembles, the Cassatt String Quartet has performed in halls throughout North America and Abroad. Including Weill Hall at Carnegie, Alice Tully Hall, the Tanglewood Music Theatre, the Kenedy Center, the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, and Maeda Hall in Tokyo. The quartet is frequently heard on WGBH, WQXR and WNYC, and has given recitals for CBC Radio and Radio France. The Cassatt has also given master classes and performed at such institutions as Yale University, Princeton University, Oberlin Conservatory, Wellesley College and Bennington College.

The Cassatt String Quartet was formed in 1985 with the encouragement of the Juilliard Quartet. They were inaugural participants in Juilliard's Young Artist String quartet Residency Program. In 1986 the Cassatt Quartet win the first prize at both the Fischoff and Coleman Chamber Music Competitions, and was awarded the first Tanglewood Chamber Music Fellowship. The Cassatt was the only American Quartet to win a top prize at the 1989 Banff International String Quartet Competition, where they wee also awarded a special prize for the best performance of the commissioned work.

In 1990 they were finalists in the Walter W. Naumberg Chamber Music Competition, and were also chosen to perform in the Pro-Quartet Forum in Paris, France.

The Cassatt Quartet was in residence at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts from 1990 to 1993. They were also awarded the Wardwell Chamber Music Fellowship at the Yale School of Music from 1991-1993, where they acted as teaching assistants to the Tokyo String Quartet.

During the summers, the quartet is in residence at the Swannanoa Chamber Festival in North Carolina. As dedicated performers of contemporary music, the quartet has commissioned and premiered many new works, and is in residence at the Bang On A Can Festival in New York City. This program of contemporary works is their debut recording.

Produced by The Cassatt String Quartet

Executive Producer: Joseph R. Dalton

Recorded at Crouse College Auditorium, Syracuse University School of Music on January 18-21, 1993.

Recording Engineer: Mark Drews. Editor: Brian C. Peters.


Davidson: Composer, (BMI)

Wofe: Composer, (ASCAP)

Waggoner: American Composers Alliance, (BMI)

Hovda: Composer (ASCAP).

Godfrey: G. Davidge Publishing, (BMI)

This recording was made possible through the generous support of:

The Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, Chamber Music America Annual New Works Fund, the Greenwall Foundation, Syracuse University and private individuals.