May 16, 2006
New York Times

“Ethel, Amplified String Quartet, Plays Free for All at Town Hall Concert” by Anthony Tommasini

One of the many benefits of Free for All at Town Hall, the series of free springtime concerts presented by Twin Lions Inc., is that grateful people with limited budgets will take a chance on something they might not be willing to pay for. That probably explains the atypical composition of the audience on Sunday afternoon, when the series began its fourth season with a contemporary-music program performed by Ethel, the young and hip amplified string quartet that champions works designed to tear down walls between classical, jazz and rock traditions.

That the college-age crowd was drawn to Ethel’s concert was no surprise. But it was unusual to see so many of the 65-and-older set at an amplified contemporary-music program. During intermission I kept overhearing them exchange greetings like: “I’ve never heard anything like this. What did you think?” Any organization that could entice both parents with children and grandparents, on this Mother’s Day, to hear Ethel play the jazz composer Don Byron’s String Quartet No. 2 (“four thoughts on Marvin Gaye”) and John King’s raunchy “LightningSlide” is doing something right.

Yet the risk with music that mixes styles so blithely is that after a little of this, a little of that, the piece can seem not much of anything. Take the opening work, an untitled suite in three movements, “Arrival,” “Sickness and Death” and “Memory,” by the Brazilian pianist and composer Marcelo Zarvos. For all the percolating rhythms and wailing riffs, the music seemed insubstantial.

Part of the problem — for me anyway — concerns amplification. When a string quartet is given an electronic boost, it tempts a composer into thinking that something big is happening when the music is fairly obvious, as in this work, and plaintive melodic bits float atop ominous pedal tones on the cello. Mr. Zarvos’s perpetual-motion third movement, full of perky riffs and clacking passages, seemed thin, for all the busyness.

The Juilliard-trained players of Ethel (Cornelius Dufallo and Mary Rowell, violinists; Ralph Farris, violist; and Dorothy Lawson, cellist) are skilled and engaging performers. Dressed casually, they introduce the works, including their own compositions, with chatty comments and foster such informality that a few children did not think twice about scampering up and down the aisle now and then during a performance.

Their palpable involvement as performers almost drew me into Phil Kline’s four-movement piece, “The Blue Room,” with its murky sustained harmonies, Minimalist riffs, and lacy melodic flights over gurgling chords. Still, I wanted more content. There is a difference between creating a layered texture with overlapping riffs (something akin to multitracking) and writing four-part counterpoint.

The best work was Mr. Byron’s quartet. Here was an astute composer unafraid to be extreme, to let jazzy music get stuck for long stretches on an obsessive idea or to mix blistering perpetual-motion energy with quizzical pizzicato chorales.

An intrepid elderly listener sitting near me bobbed her head during the pulsating episodes of this bracing piece, while across the aisle a young boy conducted vigorously with both hands. Mr. Byron and Ethel could not have asked for a better response.

The Free for All at Town Hall series will present the pianist Konstantin Lifschitz in the complete Shostakovich preludes and fugues, in a two-part program May 28; 123 West 43rd Street, Midtown, (212) 707-8787.

©2006 New York Times

back to news