Danish String Quartet at the Rockwood

UCSB Arts & Lectures Presented the DSQ on Thursday, October 14

It’s a common programming procedure in the chamber music world to pair works from the standard repertoire with new compositions. Do people come for the familiar and stay for the new, or is it the other way around? At this genuinely brilliant recital by the Danish String Quartet, the answer was both. In the first part of the concert, that quartet stretched out in a dreamy exploration of Franz Schubert’s massive and intoxicating String Quartet in G Major, D. 887, op. 161. Violist Asbjørn Nørgaard introduced the piece by calling attention to Schubert’s immense authority as a composer of songs, saying that the composer’s gift for melody serves to slow the listener down, even to the point where one’s conscious mind “goes away for a little bit,” as he put it. The DSQ’s performance of this lengthy piece was sensational — focused, symmetrical, and perfectly blended, offering listeners an ideal opportunity to appreciate the composer’s expansive lyricism and adventurous dynamics.

The second half featured the premiere of Bent Sørensen’s Doppelgänger along with the DSQ’s arrangement of Schubert’s Doppelgänger lieder from the Schwanengesang cycle. Sørensen’s piece gave immediate notice that whatever explicit relation it might bear to the work of Schubert, this was 21st-century music, make no mistake. The DSQ excelled in revealing the inherent musicality within the composer’s rich vocabulary of extended techniques and sonic effects. The musicians growled as one in the slow opening section of the second movement, and they sent up airy clouds of organ-like chords when called upon to do so. The finale, a superb transformation of Schubert’s Doppelgänger song into the musical idiom of the string quartet, expressed the eerie dilemma of the besotted and bewildered protagonist with uncanny vitality.

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Danish String Quartet mines the world of doubles for expressive gold

The Danish String Quartet performed a fascinating commissioned project in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

The concept of a doppelgänger, a mysterious twin or double, is like clowns and thunderstorms — mostly scary, but not always. Even something this unsettling can sometimes bring its own level of reassuring comfort.

“Doppelgänger,” the rich and elegant string quartet by Danish composer Bent Sørensen that had its U.S. premiere in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Sunday, Oct. 10, is of that latter type. It’s a warm, soothing bathrobe of a piece, playing tricks with our musical memories in a way that serves to reassure, not spook, the listener.

Sørensen’s 25-minute work was the centerpiece of a compelling program by the Danish String Quartet, presented by Cal Performances, and it marked the beginning of a fascinating commissioning project by the ensemble. For this undertaking — also titled “Doppelgänger” — the quartet invited a group of composers to pick a Schubert string quartet and write a new piece as a companion.

On this occasion, Sørensen took as his inspiration Schubert’s G-Major Quartet, D. 887, the composer’s final work in the form and itself a morass of ambiguities and subtle shifts in emphasis. At the heart of Schubert’s piece, which occupied the first half of Sunday’s program in a resplendently still-voiced rendition, is a simple but far-reaching question: Is the music in G major or G minor?

For a piece of tonal music, this is an existential quandary — or at least, it can be treated as such by a composer. That’s what Schubert does, creating a mood of slippery uncertainty by constantly switching back and forth between major and minor within the space of a single melodic phrase. Especially in the two outer movements, this has the effect of destabilizing everything we thought we knew about the musical landscape; the ground seems to crumble constantly beneath our feet. Yet the slow movement counteracts that image through an almost series of weightless harmonies.

The Danish Quartet — violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin — emphasized this duality in a beautiful rendition that encompassed both the music’s serenity and anxieties.

Sørensen’s piece, which followed intermission, seemed intent on picking up only the sunnier half of the Schubertian split, which is by no means a criticism. Sometimes a haunted house feels all the more arresting for having a light shone upon its interior.

More important, Sørensen’s two-movement work boasts its own ambiguities, including an elusive sense of form and a way of repeatedly tickling the listener’s memory. The conflict between G major and G minor is revisited in the opening measures, which quote the harmonies of Schubert’s first movement and the instrumental texture of his third; after that, Sørensen uses Schubertian gestures for his own expressive ends.

This is most apparent in the gorgeous second movement, a slow chorale that somehow morphs into in an instrumental aria for the second violin and then a delicate ballroom dance for marionettes. Schubert’s doubts rear their heads in the quartet’s final moments, in which a definitive G-major conclusion suddenly gives way to an open-ended question mark.

Schubert’s late song “Der Doppelgänger,” arranged by the quartet, made a terrifically apt conclusion, its dark, lugubrious harmonies undermining — or at least casting a shadow backward on — the previous delights. In the world of twins and doubles, nothing stays the same for long.

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For those needing a U.S. visa, how bad is the backlog? Ask the Danish String Quartet

The cello was large and curvy. Like a human passenger, it needed its own seat on the airplane. Unlike a human passenger, the cello did not have a passport or visa for international travel. And the cello was not allowed on the plane.

The cello’s owner, Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, a member of the Danish String Quartet, remained behind with his instrument while the rest of the group flew from Copenhagen to San Francisco. It would take Sjölin more than six hours and a personal escort through security before he and his cello could get on a flight routed through Chicago to join his friends in California at midnight.

It was the day before the start of a U.S. tour that had been canceled six times because of COVID-19 shutdowns. And the trouble with the cello was just the latest in a string of bureaucratic barriers overseas performers are encountering as they attempt to tour the States.

“This tour almost felt doomed,” said violinist Frederik Øland, whose quartet plays Santa Barbara on Thursday, Seattle on Friday and the Broad Stage on Saturday — the Santa Monica venue’s return to live, in-person performances after almost two years of pandemic closure.

The Danish String Quartet’s difficulties began mounting in June when the group tried to make appointments with the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen for the interviews needed to obtain their visas. These interviews, said viola player Asbjørn Nørgaard, are extremely straightforward but must be conducted in person. The quartet has toured the U.S. many times and never had trouble obtaining the necessary P1 visas granted to entertainers.

But things have changed during the pandemic.

“There’s a huge backlog in the global visa system to get to the U.S., and the next available appointment in Copenhagen wasn’t until November,” Nørgaard said. The tour was to start in October.

But it was still early summer, and the musicians figured they had time to sort out the visas. The quartet’s management team hired an immigration lawyer to speed the process.

“At one point, there was talk about us going to Poland because there were some available interviews. There was also talk about us going to the Dominican Republic and staying one week to get the visa there,” Nørgaard said. “We almost gave up, but suddenly there was an opening in Frankfurt, Germany.”

The men ended up taking three different flights to Frankfurt for their appointments — with only a little more than a week to spare before their departure. The men needed to leave their passports in Germany because when the visas were approved, they were to be affixed to the inside pages.

Passports are not required for travel within the European Union, so the musicians could return home to Denmark, but there was another catch: The passports (with visas attached) could be mailed only to an address inside of Germany.

The group ended up having the passports sent to an affiliate of their management’s lawyers in Berlin. The last two passports arrived on the afternoon of Oct. 7. A helper flew from Berlin to Copenhagen with all four passports the following morning because there was little faith in a courier service delivering the passports in time for a Saturday morning flight.

“It all worked out in the end so we were quite happy about that,” said violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, adding that he hopes the pandemic winds down soon — and with it the related travel woes. “Because we do love traveling in the U.S. We come three or four times a year on a tour, and it feels like our home court.”

The Grammy-nominated quartet has already made quite an impression in Southern California. After a 2014 concert in Santa Barbara at which they performed Beethoven’s C-Sharp Minor string quartet, Times classical music critic Mark Swed called the players “marvelous” and wrote, “Their command of the quartet’s challenging arch-shape formal structure was complete. They could be grounded in their tone or mystical. They allowed time to stand still, and they could assume the pose of excitingly aggressive rockers. They did it all.”

Three of the group’s four members met as schoolboys at a summer camp for aspiring musicians and have been playing together since. The fourth member, the cellist Sjölin, who is the sole Norwegian in the mix, joined in 2008.

The quartet is known for its flexibility, including a mastery of chamber music by Beethoven and Mozart as well as a firm grasp of folk music.

The touch-and-go journey to be here has made performing all the sweeter, the men said.

“It was incredible sitting on the stage,” Øland said of the tour’s first stop at UC Berkeley. “Finally being back here after two years is wonderful.”

After the Berkeley show, he added, he almost tripped on a microphone cable as he was walking offstage. Nothing will be easy this time around.

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The Danish String Quartet doubles the musical pleasure, pairing Schubert with new companion pieces

FOR INSPIRED musicianship, spectacular sonics, and visionary programming, it would be difficult to top Prism I, Prism II, and Prism III, the most recent recordings from Copenhagen’s Danish String Quartet.

The concept behind these three ECM releases is simple: take one Johann Sebastian Bach fugue, meditate on how its light is refracted through the prism of Ludwig van Beethoven’s prodigious imagination, and then bring that beam into the near-present with a Beethoven-inspired work by a great modernist composer. The effect is both literally and figuratively enlightening: through these illuminating sequences, listeners can discover historical continuities that cross from century to century, while gaining insight into how a composer’s mind can digest and process old music to arrive at something personal and new. That these lessons are delivered with uncommon joie de vivre is merely a bonus—as is the news that there are two more volumes in the series still to come.

But violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin have further gifts to bestow. Not content with simply reshaping the past, they’re moving into creating the future, with a new commissioning project that will pair four of their favourite living composers with four of Franz Schubert’s monumental string quartets. The premieres will be designed to reflect, in some way, the old masterpieces, hence the new project’s title: Doppelgänger.

“We’ve done so much Beethoven over the last many years, with the Prism project and also with the Beethoven year last year, that we were sort of looking for some of this other major repertoire that you can do as a string quartet,” Nørgaard explains, in a phone call from a San Francisco hotel. “We’ve been interested in the Schubert quartets for a while, the late Schuberts. And then we were quite happy with the way the Prism project worked out, so we wanted to do something a little bit like that, where we would put contrasting works next to each other. 

“We thought it would be an interesting thing to also commission some more music,” the violist continues. “We’ve done commissions before, but not as many as we maybe wanted to. So we thought it would be a nice framework where we could have those classical masterpieces sort of live side-by-side with the commissioning endeavour. We’re sort of covering a lot of bases at once, you might say, but also making the Schubert quartets more accessible to some people, and maybe also making the commissions more attractive to promoters.”

The plan appears to be working. Promoters worldwide, including our own Vancouver Recital Society, have signed up to present the full four-concert cycle, and advance reports are more than promising.

“Rich and elegant,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman said of the Danish String Quartet’s October 11 concert in Berkeley, describing the musicians’ approach to Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G major as “a beautiful rendition that encompassed both the music’s serenity and anxieties”. Their countryman Bent Sørensen’s accompanying Doppelgänger, in contrast, felt “sunnier”, but “sometimes a haunted house feels all the more arresting for having a light shine upon its interior.”

We’ll hear the same program at the Orpheum this Sunday (October 17); future Doppelgänger installments will feature composers Lotta Wennäkoski, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Thomas Adès responding to three different Schubert masterworks.  

“We didn’t want to give the composers too much of a feeling that they had to do anything,” Nørgaard says of the commissioning project. “They sort of accepted the premise that their piece would be played side-by-side with a specific Schubert quartet. But I don’t know if they will quote the Schubert, if they will write something that’s similar to Schubert, something that’s completely different to the Schubert….It can be quite a personal thing, and they are the creators of the art. We just wanted to create a framework, and we are also curious to see how they will respond to that.”

Nørgaard reports that Sørensen’s Doppelgänger—the first of the four commissions they’ve received—makes specific musical allusions to the String Quartet No. 15 in G major, but the relationship between the two pieces is perhaps more impressionistic than quote-based. 

“These late Schubert quartets, they are huge pieces of music,” he notes. “They’re long, and all of them have in common this feeling of timelessness. For instance, in the G Major Quartet that we’ll do in Vancouver, it’s very long, and often it’s very repetitive. When you perform it or you listen to it, you’re almost sucked into a sort of meditation on music. The same melody comes 20 times in a row in very similar ways, and you sort of lose your sense of time perception. And I think this is the feeling that Bent has been trying to reach in his quartet as well. He’s playing around with the feeling of changing time all the time; there’s almost never two bars in a row that have the same time [signature]. It’s always changing; it feels like it’s always sort of slowing down, most of the piece, and then at the very end it speeds up and brings us back into reality.

“So I think he’s responding [to Schubert] in these ways: some specific quotes, something in the overall language, but maybe mostly in the feeling that we and the audience are going together into sort of a vacuum where the regular time doesn’t exist any more. That’s something that’s quite unique to the late Schubert, and that Bent maybe is also reaching for in his own quartet.”

A voyage out of time and into a sunny but slippery musical atmosphere? After the year-and-a-half that we’ve all shared, that sounds like a most enticing prospect.

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