Delgani String Quartet: Commissioning tomorrow’s classics

Eugene quartet's spring season nurtures new music alongside classics


“If you’re a musician today and you’re not commissioning new works, or at the very least working with living composers on works they’ve already composed, then you’re really just treading water,” Delgani String Quartet Artistic Director Wyatt True tells ArtsWatch. “Without collaboration between performer and composer, the development of music goes nowhere.”

True, whose ensemble premieres three commissioned works this season, observes that audiences “love new music” and that even very unexpected contemporary works can be positively received if the audience is prepared to make sense of the music they are hearing. Fortunately for the performance of most Delgani commissions, the composers are available to share insights into their music with audiences.

“Don’t get me wrong, we love playing Beethoven too!” True says. “But even Beethoven’s music would not be here today if no one ever took an interest in it. Besides, how great is it to be able to actually speak with the composer about their work? Imagine all of the interpretive issues that could be resolved instantly if we could talk to Mozart or Beethoven.”

Delgani at the Eugene Jazz Station. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

This March, Delgani will premiere new commissions by Oregon composer Greg Steinke and Toronto-based Roydon Tse, both winners of the ensemble’s Call for Scores. Later in the season the group premieres a new piece by University of Oregon percussion faculty member Pius Cheung and a regional premiere of a work by Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho.

At the end of last season, Delgani issued a call for proposed pieces asking composers to submit work samples and an idea, which was pretty open ended according to True, for a 12 minute string quartet that would be suitable for programming alongside Smetana’s autobiographical From My Life, which many of the submitted concepts thematically took into account.

Delagani received 21 submissions from composers all over the United States and even a few from abroad. Through a blind selection process, the members settled on the concepts proposed by Steinke and Tse, who were then asked to compose new works for performance this March. True believes that the music of Steinke and Tse, who each received $1,000, have very distinctive styles of composition, will programmatically complement each other along with the Smetana piece.

Greg Steinke’s From Songs Of The Fire Circles (Image Music XLII)

Steinke, who lives in Depoe Bay, is particularly interested in Native American poetry and musical materials, which supplied some of the melodic/harmonic ideas for the score — a multi-disciplinary inspiration that intrigued Delgani.

Depoe Bay Composer Greg A. Steinke. Photo: Oregon Composers Watch

Steinke proposed a piece based on the verses from Songs of the Fire Circles by native American poet K’os Naahaabii (A.K.A. Don Jordon), who was born in the Tonto Basin country of Arizona and was on the staff of Humboldt State in the 1970s. The single-movement quartet contains five sections corresponding to the stanzas of a selected verse. The piece gives each instrument a solo moment as well as others that emphasize the ensemble.

“I think that text metaphor I have chosen would complement the Smetana quartet,” Steinke wrote in his proposal. “This ‘song’ from the Songs of the Fire Circles is indeed somewhat autobiographical on the part of the poet (who derived his cycle of spiritual visions from near-death experiences, dreams, and fasting) and would offer another aspect of ‘From My Life’ as is expressed in the Smetana work.”

(Editor’s note: Listen to Steinke’s Memories of Chief Joseph (2013), performed by Sarah Viens (trumpet) and Michael Roberts (marimba).

Roydon Tse’s Where I Have Lived

While Steinke’s composition finds inspiration in Native American art, 25-year-old Roydon Tse looks to his own personal journey. When he received the commission to write a quartet to be featured alongside Smetana’s autobiographical From My Life quartet, he originally proposed to write a work that reflected the musical influences on his development as a composer — the “voices of the many composers that have engaged my imagination in my life so far,” ranging from turn-of-the-20th-century composers such as Mahler, Ravel, and Isaac Albéniz, to mid-20th-century jazz musicians and composers like Bill Evans and Nikolai Kapustin to later composers such as Takemitsu, Ligeti, and Thomas Adés.

Canadian Composer Roydon Tse.

“However, as I continued to think about the idea of writing variations based on styles of my most admired composers,” he wrote in the program notes for his piece, “I realized that there was a danger of writing a ‘second hand version’ of that particular composer. Eventually, I decided that it might be interesting to explore the places I have lived as a point of departure… to paint a portrait of those places [Hong Kong, Eastbourne, Edmonton, Vancouver, and now Toronto] as I recall them.”  True notes that the change resulted in a piece that Delgani finds “very enjoyable and fits nicely into our “From My Life” theme.”

(Editor’s note: Listen to Tse’s 2015 University of Toronto Quartet Composition Competition winning piece, “Breathe“.)

Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Evolving Elements

Delgani’s season finale concerts on April 30 and May 16 include Alice Ping Yee Ho’s concerto for marimba and string uartetEvolving Elements, which the group discovered in a recording by the Penderecki Quartet. True believes that the Delgani performance with Eriko Daimo​ may be a US premiere  of this concerto for marimba and string quartet and if not, it is definitely an Oregon one.

Eriko Daimo performing at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. Photo: Gary Ferrington

According to program notes by the Canadian Music Center, the idea for this 2005 composition “comes from the Chinese word Li – meaning energy. In nature, energy is found in many forms and states. The forces of nature are always powerful and constantly evolving in unpredictable manners. In this piece the energy of four fundamental elements is captured in four units: light, water, wind, and fire. Each movement represents a distinct musical subject which is unique in sound, mood, color, and instrumental techniques. This work displays the various special virtuosity and musicality of the performers.”

Alice Ping Yee Ho is an award winning Canadian composer and pianist born in Hong Kong who studied composition at Indiana University and the University of Toronto. She is a prolific composer of concert, theater and film music recognized as having a strong affinity for the dramatic. Percussion plays an important role in her work.

Delgani concludes the evening with Ravel’s beloved string quartet.

(Editor’s note: View an informative Canadian Music Center interview with Alice Ho about her career in composition)

Percussionist Eriko Daimo and Pius Cheung, July 2016 OBF Composers Symposium. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Pius Cheung’s Flow

Those April and May season finales also feature award­ winning marimbist Eriko Daimo​ joining her husband Pius Cheung in a performance of Cheung’s Flow, for percussion and string quartet, commissioned by the quartet.

Cheung told ArtsWatch that he has conceived his 15 minute piece as two connected movements. The first movement for string and vibraphone is more ‘traditional’ in concept.  “It is slow and simply a 7 minute crescendo. I employed a 7-note motif, which I inverted and retrograded in its entirety, forming a 28 note motif. I then overlaid these 28 notes eight times in augmentations of different proportions, the longest of which is 6 times the original. And that’s the first movement.”

“The second movement is where ‘things go wrong,” explains Cheung, who has an interest in extended techniques for string instruments. “Conceptually, the first movement is ‘flow’, the second is ‘against’.  (This makes more sense in Chinese.  Flow=流.  Against=逆.) Still built on variations of the 7-note motif, this movement has more influences from my backgrounds in Asian music, at times mimicking various elements of pipa, gujing, and Cantonese Opera.  The percussionist will have a variety of skin instruments and marimba. But each string player will also need to play some kick drum as well, and possibly some Chinese opera gongs and cymbals. Tentatively, I am also planning a page using only graphic notation, where the use of extended techniques of string instruments will be more prominent. There will be suggestions what they should do, but exactly what and in what order is up to them. With a group of great musicians and friends like the Delgani and Eriko, I find it is best to leave some of the composition process up to them.” In this way, too, Delgani’s commissioning project is a deeply collaborative effort.

(Editor’s note: Listen to Pius Cheung’s Prelude in g minor, 2017)

Looking Forward

True notes that it is one of Delgani’s primary goals to commission new works every year. Next season is already being planned with classic works from as far back as Haydn and Mozart, to 20th century masterpieces and new works that will be written in 2017-18.

The season includes still another commission: a special project funded by a grant from the Creative Heights initiative of the Oregon Community Foundation to commission and record a new composition. Delgani will perform Benjamin Krause’s new string quartet, inspired by the Oregon Cascade Range, atop the Dee Wright Observatory east of Eugene. Video of that performance, the peaks of the Cascade Range,  and a studio recording of the music will be combined to create a musical documentary of the Cascade mountain range. Cascade Geographic Society will enhance the video with information about the history and formation of the mountains and use it in its museums. Delgani will also perform the music during its concert season.

The Eugene-based Delgani String Quartet is Jannie Wei and Wyatt True, violins; Kimberlee Uwate, viola; and Eric Alterman, cello.

Delgani Quartet performs From My Life at 3 pm March 12 (Salem) and 7:30 pm March 21 (Eugene) and Evolving Elements at 3pm April 30 (Salem) and 7:30 pm May 16 (Eugene). Tickets and information online.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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