Review: Change in plans no problem for Catalyst Quartet at Spivey Hall

someone falls ill; the whole show has to change.

Sunday afternoon at Spivey Hall, the Catalyst Quartet arrived for a program devoted to under-valued Black composers, including sophisticated spiritual arrangements by the always engaging Florence Price. Not least, Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, was billed as the concert’s headliner, joining the Catalyst for a rarity: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings.

Alas, once McGill withdrew, citing health reasons, the original narrative arc was in tatters. But Catalyst is a string quartet on a mission. They would not be stymied.

So they offered one of their more typical programmes, strong works by three women composers from three different eras of music, plus a charming novelty.

They opened with one of their signature works, Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum.” The Catalyst was formed in 2010, a component of the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based non-profit dedicated to training and supporting Black and Latino string players. Montgomery, a violinist, was a Catalyst member before her career as a composer took flight. Today, Montgomery is among the most in-demand of American composers. (The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed her music as recently as last seasonand will perform more next month.) Wonderfully, she’s in heavy rotation.

So it held special meaning to hear the Catalyst’s four current members — violinists Karla Donehew-Perez and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, cellist Karlos Rodriguez — perform “Strum,” in an exuberant reading. Throughout, there’s a strong rhythmic drive and a folk-like vibe. The music opens with violin and viola plucking and strumming their strings, quizzically at first then more extrovertedly, and this becomes a recurring pattern, embroidered by swinging tunes, at turns biting, soaring or sounding free and almost improvised. Just seven minutes long, “Strum” is a small masterpiece.

19th-century Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Gomes is mostly remembered today for operas in the grand Italian style. (His “Il Guarany” has been a showpiece for now-disgraced superstar tenor Plácido Domingo.) Gomes’ string quartet, titled Sonata for Strings in D Major, comes with a cute subtitled, “O burrico de pau” (or the “Little Wooden Donkey”).

The music is delightful, broadly lyrical and very Italianate. You could imagine the whole thing sung, as comic opera arias with clever instrumental backing. In the rollicking finale we hear the donkey at play — or maybe a child’s rocking horse come to life — with braying and hee-haws and other barnyard exclamations. It ends with a moment of surprise con legno — where the musicians tap their strings with the wood of their bows — and a big push to the finish.

After intermission, the foursome returned for quartets by two women composers—Germain Taillefere and Fanny Mendelssohn—who were neither forgotten nor undervalued as much as overshadowed by the prominent men in their orbit.

Taillefere was the only woman included in the group of composers dubbed “Les Six” in 1920 by a Parisian music critic. The grouping involved a half-dozen composers living in the bohemian Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris. “Les Six” didn’t sound alike but each of them had, in their music, rejected both the lush Impressionism of Debussy and also the thick German Romanticism of Wagner and Strauss — basically, the styles that were most popular in concert halls and operas. houses at the time.

Catalyst Quartet
Violinist Karla Donehew-Perez is a founding member of the Catalyst Quartet.

“Les Six” is an impressive group, including powerful creative spirits like Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger, and lesser talents like Auric and Durey. Taillefere sits somewhere in the middle; her best pieces join the best of her cohort.

In Taillefere’s intensely subtle String Quartet, written during the war years 1917-1919, the Catalyst found a range of muted colors and complex moods, all packed into three compact movements. Throughout — and this is as anti-German as you could get — the music doesn’t shout answers at you but asks delicate questions. This is expert string quartet writing, in an attractive voice like none other.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s younger brother Felix was a child prodigy comparable to Mozart and was such a dominant musical figure, starting when he was a teenager, that it’s easy to understand why even a talented sibling might not emerge creatively unscathed. Yet she wrote reams of music and was said to be a fine pianist, although she performed mostly at home. The children were given the same education, but the family for a time had Fanny’s music published under Felix’s name. She was given a world of sophisticated know how but limited opportunities to blaze her own artistic path.

In her String Quartet in E-flat, from 1834, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (she married in 1830) borrows structural devices and something of a soundworld from Felix’s efforts in the genre. There are lyrical, buoyant themes, rich harmonies, bits that are elfin and spritely, and excited fugal passages – although the work is not powered by hummable tunes.

Here violinists Donehew-Perez and Fayette swapped chairs — Fayette now playing the first violin part — but the quartet seemed a bit tired by the end, with hairline intonation problems and lowered energy levels. Like an athletic event, a string of quartet trains and rehearses for a specific program. Perhaps when their guest clarinetist canceled with just a day or two of notice, the show had to go on but without enough time for ideal preparation.


Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington PostLondon’s Financial Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.

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