January 25, 2020
A diversity-embracing string quartet has something to say, and says it in style.
A Malaysian, a German, an American and a Canadian walked into a recording studio… That’s neither the prelude to a joke nor a hypothetical posit. In fact, New World is the latest disc from the thought-provoking Sirius Quartet (Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violin, Ron Lawrence, viola, and Jeremy Harman, cello) and a politically-charged exploration of themes of immigration, discrimination, musical integration, and how artists might function as agents of change.
Far from seeming didactic or overly worthy, these nine original compositions and arrangements by members of the quartet are imbued with an eclectic spirit, a sense of improvisation in the cause of restless beauty, and much that is purely joyous, while giving plenty of pause for thought. It also happens to be very well played.
The program opens with Beside the Point, composer Fung Chern Hwei’s “declaration of struggle against discrimination.” It’s a restless, minimalist work with a suggestion of the music of the violinist’s homeland, a hint of rock and roll, and an edgy energy that’s compelling. Cellist and composer Jeremy Harman’s Currents, on the other hand, has a brooding, bluesy quality that maintains its interest by mood shifts and by exploiting bent notes and ticking pizzicati. Later on, his More Than We Are is surprisingly temperamental for what is mean to be a reflection on the birth of his son.
The title track, composer and violinist Gregor Huebner’s New World, Nov. 9, 2016, is a darker, more threatening affair, which incidentally won the New York Philharmonic’s ‘New World Initiative’ composition competition back in 2017. In case you’ve forgotten, 9/11/2016 was the day Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States, and the work, which mixes positive themes from Dvořák’s New World Symphony with tight-lipped, stabbing phrases from Shostakovich’s biting Eighth String Quartet, is an angsty brew. “With two immigrant violinists, we in the quartet feel that it’s important to create music that speaks to the moment in which we live and gives hope,” says Huebner in the sleeve note.
Other works are based on famously challenging, though by no means dreary songs. Huebner’s #STILL is a melancholy echo of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, a song that observes the corpse of an African American lynched by a racist mob. There’s a version of Eleanor Rigby that manages to sound almost like a lament for the holocaust before whirling off into a wild, jazzy, and eminently toe-tapping reading. Radiohead’s Knives Out gets a similarly twitchy arrangement. Even the done-to-death Cavatina from The Deer Hunter gets an effective and touching makeover.
The Quartet describes the album as “an impassioned lament for the state of a nation” and hope it might serve as a call to action. Either way, it’s an immersive and largely pleasurable experience.