Avalon String Quartet

The Avalon String Quartet plays Biggs, Wickman, Gryc & Macbride

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The Avalon String Quartet plays Biggs, Wickman, Gryc & Macbride Review

by James Manheim

This recording by the youthful Avalon Quartet, a group in residence at Northern Illinois University, includes works by four composers; all except Ethan Wickman teach composition at prominent U.S. music schools. Two of them, Stephen Michael Gryc and David MacBride, are associated with the Hartt College of Music in Connecticut. The reader of the booklet (in English only) does not learn how the program came together, but it makes sense: despite a wide variation in mood and subject matter, the composers share a common attitude toward tonality and toward the use of preexisting material. The general language of each work is only loosely tonal, but passages of simple tonality recur as expressive devices. O Sapientia/Steal Away (2004), by Manhattan School of Music professor Hayes Biggs, draws on both Biggs' own motet O Sapientia and the spiritual Steal Away, which is first presented straight and then subjected to a complex fantasy. Wickman's Namasté offers five programmatic movements based on episodes from Hindu scriptures; they contain little or no influence from Indian music but are evocative of the subject matter they address. Gryc's String Quartet is intentionally uncommunicatively titled; the piece manipulates the classical movement sequence of the string quartet, presenting, in Gryc's formulation, two movements that develop the "exposition" of the material in the third movement, a lyrical Adagio. Whether this makes sense is something individual listeners will have to decide for themselves. Outside guidance is least necessary in the final work, MacBride's A Muse (2002), which "is a portrait of a young girl [the composer's daughter] and her world, complete with mystery, melodrama, and melanchoy." The Avalon String Quartet plays with complete accuracy and enthusiasm for each individual composer's style. For a sampling of the music being made in university composition departments in the U.S., you could do worse than this disc.

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