Civitella Ranieri

Civitella Ranieri
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Monday, February 24, 2014

Jim Matheson's 'String Quartet'

Last week, on February 19, the St. Lawrence String Quartet premiered Jim Matheson's (CRF 2013) composition String Quartet at the Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa, California.  The piece was commissioned by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting and inspired by Jim's time at Civitella.  In the program for the concert, Jim describes the process of writing String Quartet thus:

"The hills of Umbria. The frescos of Piero della Francesa. Food, wine and nightly dining with a table full of new friends. These were the surroundings when I set to serious work on String Quartet for six magical weeks at Civitella Ranieri, a 15th century Italian castle that has become a home for artists, writers, composers and other ne’erdo-wells of many flavors and stripes. My only task for this trip: use these surroundings to inspire a new work for the St. Lawrence String Quartet—one of the world’s most astonishing chamber ensembles—commissioned by Justus and Elizabeth Schlichting, two of the most straightforwardly generous people I have known.

I found myself so inspired by the people I met there, the beauty of the castle and its surroundings, the long walks through the hill towns, the late night conversations about every possible subject that, despite my daily rituals of composition, I came away having written almost nothing.  

I wrote String Quartet once I returned to my home in Brooklyn, fueled by the memory of my Umbrian adventure, and haunted by the opening lines of The Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

(Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.)

Or, less literally, but more beautifully,

(Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.)

Of course, even the darkest journey has an end—my time in Umbria and Dante’s first journey with Virgil share similar, wonderful fates:

salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

(Him first, then me—until we came to a round opening
Through which I saw some of the most beautiful things
That come with Heaven. And we walked out
To once again catch sight of the stars.)"

We thank Jim for his beautiful words and for acknowledging Civitella in the program.  The Orange County Register published a glowing review of the performance in its February 20 edition, writing of Jim's piece:

"The program skipped the 19th century. It started and ended with quartets by the father of the genre, Haydn, the two works written 25 years apart. It also featured the world premiere of a new string quartet by the Brooklyn-based composer James Matheson – commissioned for the Segerstrom Center’s chamber music series by Orange Countians Justus and Elizabeth Schlichting – and the rarely played String Quartet No. 3 by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, written in 1945.

Matheson’s String Quartet is an impressive piece of work. Thirty-two minutes long, it is brimming with ideas; the richness of their number is palpable. It is also composed in an accessible style, but not a dumbed-down one. The composer’s intention of accessibility is nicely summed up by the movement titles, which Matheson (he was in attendance) told us he came up with just that day. They are: “All leap and no faith”; “Y ‘heart’ X”; and “Pure chocolate energy.” This isn’t Pierre Boulez.
Matheson, who recently composed a violin concerto for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, obviously has a talent for writing for strings. The String Quartet is, perhaps first and foremost, beautifully orchestrated, the combination of instruments used to create one wondrous color after another. Motor rhythms and repeated patterns juice forward progress; these ideas move through tonal progressions, reaching plateaus of more static material (at least in the first two movements) – meditative, starry-skied, rapt. The quick finale is a syncopated romp."

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