Hausmann Quartet at Berkeley Chamber Performances

October 21, 2014

Original review posted at:

Looking for faith in unexpected places.

The Berkeley City Club, a building designed by Julia Morgan and dedicated in 1930, is the jewel-like scene of a monthly chamber concert series, conceived and run by Joanne de Phillips as the Berkeley Chamber Performances. They inaugurated this year’s concerts on Tuesday, Sept. 21 with the Hausmann Quartet, an accomplished young foursome with a luscious sound and an experimental bent.

Their program put together a twentieth century rebel, a nineteenth century romantic, and a lovely contemporary work for an evening that began with a prank and ended with a prayer.

There was a sizable turnout despite some bad timing. Tuesday’s first game of the World Series put a small damper on this sophisticated event, with concertgoers furtively checking their cell phones as the lights dimmed. But as the quartet exploded into jazz scales and carnival flair in Louis Gruenberg’s Four Diversions, our imaginations left the Giants and the Kansas City Royals behind.

In Gruenberg’s work one could hear bits of ragtime, bits of Stravinski, a burlesque of bright colors in an everyday kind of madness. Isaac Allen played first violin with sharp top notes and rich depths. In the eerie and slightly sinister second movement his notes slurred and leaned on each other and then collapsed in a pile.

High violin scribbles were etched against the lowest notes of cello, amply supplied by Alex Greenbaum, who proved equal to the varied and exceptional demands of the program. After a slow pseudo-rhumba, the spotlight shifted to violist Angela Choong, whose exceptionally warm tone proved to be the heart of this ensemble.

Hausmann Quartet - by Adrian Bonifacio
Photo of the Hausmann Quartet, from left: Isaac Allen, Melody Chang, Alex Greenbaum and Angela Choong; photo by Adrian Bonifacio at Noe Valley.

And if Choong was the heart, newcomer violinist Melody Chang proved to be the flair, taking the first violin part in difficult Schumann runs and then in Kevin Puts’ stirring Credo. This violinist was surprisingly edgy in a quartet of long romantic gestures. Schumann’s less-performed Quartet in F-Ma Op. 41, No. 2 was a workout for the foursome, with gorgeous lines and unexpected joins.

And then came a present day masterpiece. After intermission (and an announcement that the Giants had hung onto their lead!) the Hausmann Quartet performed a work that will surely endure, and performed it powerfully. It began with harmonics and the sounds of tuning, high gestures and low simple chords, and then slowed to balance on that knife-edge between hope and devastation.

In a letter read by cellist Greenbaum, Kevin Puts described his choice of Credo for a 2005 commission, a composition that was meant to be “the lighter side of America.” He wrote the piece, he said, while “young lives and billions of dollars poured into a hopeless war [in Iraq] and millions marched with an appalled understanding that America was ceding its role as the best hope of mankind. Around this time a disturbed loner finally enacted his plan to gun down a record-breaking number of his fellow students at Virginia Tech.”

“One day I noticed the word ‘Believe’ emblazoned across a building. I later learned this was part of a campaign by the City of Baltimore, where ten percent of its population is addicted to either heroin or cocaine. Sometimes it seems all you can do is believe.”

“I have found solace in the strangest places,” wrote Puts.

Pieced together with modern daring amid quotes from Bach and the Latin Mass, his Credo was birthed in the pain of our history. But as I listened to the Hausmann Quartet perform its haunting last movement, I could also hear the song that Jews sang in the concentration camps, Ani ma’amim: “I believe with perfect faith/ in the coming of the Messiah/ And though he tarry/ Still I believe.”

After slow-bowed phrases finally stilled, there was a long minute of silence before people began to applaud.

For information on their next concert, see

—Adam Broner

Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera Haunts San Diego Museum of Art

November 21, 2012

Original review posted at:

Jie Ma (photo courtesy of the performer)

Life and death. The really big topics. Once religion had the monopoly on this conversation, but in our essentially secular culture, the arts increasingly carry on the discussion.

Art of Élan staged Tan Dun’s evocative, recondite “Ghost Opera” Tuesday (Nov. 20) at the San Diego Museum of Art’s Copley Auditorium, the second installment on the company’s avant garde series “in your dreams.” A theater piece that weaves aspects of ancient Chinese funeral rites with the warm sounds of the string quartet and the piquant edge of the pipa (a traditional Chinese lute), “Ghost Opera” creates an esoteric but mesmerizing 40-minute ritual.

“Ghost Opera” starts with the strings quoting softly the opening of J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor (BWV 849) while the pipa player intones a fragile, traditional Chinese folk song; later, a snippet of Shakespeare’s “Tempest” is recited in fragments. These three elements, according to the composer, represent the past. The string quartet and the pipa represent the present, and the sounds of stones, paper and water (those who attended Tan Dun’s “Water Passion” at SummerFest 2012 in August know how important illuminated bowls of water are to the composer) represent eternity. As these elements comingled in various combinations and textures, friendly spirits were conjured with plaintive wails; demons were routed with fierce shouts, and the walls that separate past and future were penetrated.

The Hausmann Quartet, a resident ensemble at San Diego State University, and pipa virutosa Jie Ma gave a riveting, sympathetic account of this 1994 piece originally written for (and recorded by) San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet and Wu Man. Not only are the “Ghost Opera” musicians required to move around the stage, sometimes playing as they stride, they must also play various percussion instruments (bells, gongs, cymbals, rocks), and the single-stringed lute, as well as occasionally sing and frequently shout “Yao,” a Chinese exclamation that startles demonic powers.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Tan Dun’s musical language is his use of time. Western composers use rests in varying degrees, but rarely without loosing the underlying pulse. Tan Dun often abandons continuous pulse, suspending the forward direction, making the movement from instrument to instrument or from one musical idea to the next unpredictable. The listener is engaged more by the actions and movements of the performers than by the flow of the music, which is why “Ghost Opera” is more ritual than string quartet with obbilgato lute.

To that end, members of Hausmann and Jie Ma proved masterful. First violin Isaac Allen protrayed a ferocious monk pantomime; second violin Eric Chin played confidently while striding around the stage, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw executed precise hand percussion patterns when not encumbered with his instrument. Jie Ma sang delicately while punctuating her phrases with deft finger cymbals.

This is the first time I have heard the Hausmann Quartet, and I was favorably impressed with their beautifully matched ensemble in the quiet sections of this work. I imagine them playing a delicious Ravel F Major String Quartet or Janacek’s “Intimate Letters.” I was also impressed with the massive, rich sonority that violist Angela Choong poured out in the opening movements as a kind of pedal tone around which the other elements gathered.

Jie Ma’s pipa solos bristled with an articulate, singing tone, and she turned tartly percussive beginnings into deftly shaded resolutions. I prescribe listening to the pipa for those who—like me—who have heard one too many Rodrigo guitar concertos.

This program opened, appropriately, with Ines Irawati’s serenely balanced account of the Bach C-sharp Minor Prelude and Fugue that “Ghost Opera” quotes. Her keyboard technique was admirable, although the harpsichord on which she performed was the most bland, feeble harpsichord I have ever encountered in a concert.

Violinist Pei-Chun Tsai offered Bright Sheng’s “The Stream Flows,” a taut, asymmetrical pair of contrasting portraits for solo violin. The relaxed, sinuous melody of the first, tempered by frequent bent tones, contrasted well with the throaty, raucous peasant dance of the second. Sheng, another Chinese composer who has found acclaim in North American musical circles, is particularly skilled at fusing Asian musical gestures into tonal musical contexts. It made a winning prelude to “Ghost Opera.”

—Ken Herman