Updated: Aug 9, 2021
As part of their online “At Home” performances, the Celebrity Series of Boston premiered Castle of our Skins‘ (COOS) “Remember King” concert on February 18, 2021 via YouTube (and it will remain available to stream for the next three months). The production is excellent, and the Celebrity Series has managed a remarkable feat: COOS and the production team at The Loop Lab have created a concert video with an attention to space that produces an audience experience analogous to a concert hall or chamber concert. It is a testament to both the creativity and the frustrations induced by months of governmental mismanagement of the pandemic and its particularly deleterious effects on live music.
The concert begins with a masked Robin Baker, Celebrity Series of Boston Associate Director of Community Engagement, addressing the streaming audience with our current version of the “please silence your phone” announcement: “Everyone in front of and behind the cameras for this evening’s concert has passed a Covid-19 test and will be wearing masks. Adhering to the state’s health and safety guidelines keeps our environment safe and allows us to keep bringing concerts to you all.”
True to her word, the members of the Castle of our Skins string quartet (Gabriela Díaz and Mina Lavcheva, violins; Ashleigh Gordon, viola; and Francesca McNeeley, cello) were wearing masks, and they appear to be approximately six feet apart. My thoughts immediately ran to the potential communication problems that these COVID protocols would cause the ensemble, but COOS quickly extinguished these concerns with a remarkably tight performance.
The quartet opens with George Walker’s Molto adagio (“Lyric for Strings”), originally from his String Quartet No. 1 and subsequently made into a standalone work. It is a somber piece that Walker completed shortly after his maternal grandmother died, and the revelation that Walker’s grandmother was enslaved was particularly poignant. The quartet’s performance is slow and methodical, glancing at each other through their face coverings and using their bodies to create rich, lyrical, and mournful musical gestures. I almost felt the profound reverberation in a climactic up-bow, maybe since this beautiful music was what I needed toward the end of a long and isolated pandemic.
Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” is merely a preview of the main event—Daniel Bernard Roumain’s String Quartet No. 2 “King” written in 2001. Ashleigh Gordon, the Artistic and Executive Director of COOS and the violist in the group, introduces DBR’s work. “In speaking of dedications, this ‘Remember King’ concert, we wanted to perform Daniel Bernard Roumain’s second string quartet, also called ‘King,’ which is in dedication to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote this quartet as part of sort of a suite of civil rights-inspired string quartets ranging from quartets that were in honor of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Colin Powell. This particular piece you’ll hear is in five movements that are separated by moments in time, and it is one that really showcases the contributions as well as the complications of Dr. King’s life and legacy.”
The performance begins with McNeeley (cello) already on a darkened stage. We hear Lavcheva begin her yearning violin solo while slowly entering, but then the camera blurs our vision. She comes into focus, and we suddenly see and hear Gordon (viola) emerging to complete the initial duet. By the time both McNeeley and Díaz (violin) make their musical entrance, the choice to slowly introduce the quartet members has given you a sense of the space in the concert hall and the pacing of the composition.
DBR’s work is filled with pulsing minimalist textures, blatant dissonances, and heavy polyrhythms that suggest constant and persistent civil rights struggles. He includes moments of calm lyricism, but he always punctuates them with funk baseline pizzicatos or harsh rock-inspired sul ponticello grooves. The first and last movements, which include minimalist chord progressions that hint at greatness, are subtly skewed by the cellist’s triplet figure, noting that we still must fight for civil rights. As indicated in the program note, DBR instructs each instrumentalist to exit stage left once their part ends, and the second violin remains, “playing a line that is ‘hushed (but no longer abused)’ until they too take their leave.” Lavcheva, being the first to enter, is the last to leave, and while her final suspended note fades away, she too walks backward into the dimming lights.
A Q&A session follows the concert, and the quartet answers questions that were submitted in advance. The questions mainly focus on how to integrate and encourage diverse programming, both in concerts and in schools. I appreciated the attempt to recreate the post-concert hang in an online setting. While it’s not the same as real life, I am thankful that I could “attend” this concert since I live nowhere near the Boston area. And I am further grateful that the Celebrity Series of Boston allows audiences to stream the show many times over since this entire concert is a delight, both in its programming and performance.