Cape Cod Times, November 4, 2003

Borromeos showcase Ellison’s eclectic approach

– The young American composer Michael Ellison has a staunch ally in the Borromeo String Quartet.

In Concert:
What: Borromeo String Quartet, performing works of Ellison, Haydn and Brahms
Presented by: Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival
When: Sunday
Where: First Congregational Church, Chatham

Commissioned for the Boston-based ensemble by the National Endowment for the Arts, Ellison’s dynamic, innovative String Quartet No. 2, completed in 2001, is the centerpiece of several New England concerts this fall, including Sunday’s presentation at Chatham’s First Congregational Church by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. This weekend, the seven-movement piece, which deftly mixes Turkish and Eastern-European rhythms with syncopated American-style music, will be played by the Borromeos at a festival of new music in Istanbul, where Ellison has lived for several years. The eclectic composer is studying Anatolian music – the source of the Lydian and Phrygian modes – from ancient Turkey at the Istanbul Technical University’s MIAM Center for Advanced Studies in Music.

Like the best of the so-called “post-modernist” composers, Ellison seems to move effortlessly from tonal to atonal music, from the poignantly lyrical to incisive Bartokian dissonance, without compromising the essence of his piece. It’s the sort of “stream-of-consciousness” approach evident in Beethoven’s late quartets, particularly his Op. 131, which Ellison lists as one of his main inspirations. So smooth is the marriage between the contemporary and the traditional in Ellison’s quartet that highly dissonant passages, which usually have audience members grinding their teeth, are taken in stride as the adrenaline-producing “white-water” phase of the journey. From the opening passages – a dramatic series of intensive, energy-gathering upward gestures that repeatedly disintegrate into shower patterns of notes – it becomes increasingly evident that the piece constitutes the composer’s own artistic journey from initial “fits and starts” to a creative assimilation of multicultural influences.

Turkish elements surface not as exotic ornaments but as integral features of the composition. Eastern and Western rhythms not only alternate freely but, in the “whirling dervish” fourth-movement scherzo, actually are superimposed, to delightful effect. The pizzicato section sounded like a string of small firecrackers or popping corn. The slow movement, according to the composer, is centered in the tonality of E flat in the Lydian mode, but the listener is aware only of a soothing pattern of descending whole tones in the violins answered by reassuringly gentle, upward-sweeping waves of sound from the lower voices.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: