Galax Quartet with Karen Clark to Play Concerts in Palo Alto, Berkeley and San Francisco, 1/31-2/2

The San Francisco Early Music Society's 2013-14 concert series continues the weekend of January 31 - February 2, 2014 in an inspired program by the Galax Quartet with contralto Karen Clark. Titled Chromatic Clusters, the program pairs avant-garde music from the 16th century with new music from today, including the world premiere of Roy Wheldon's On the Petaluma River and the West Coast premiere of Joseph Schwantner's Dream Drapery: Thoreau Songs.

The historically disparate works on the program share in common a pronounced interest in chromaticism, a musical innovation that gained prominence during the later Renaissance and early baroque periods, as composers sought ways of extending tonality beyond the traditional system of church modes.

Orlando di Lasso's set of 13 motets, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum, which occupies most of the first half of Galax's program, is one of the most famous examples of chromaticism from the late 16th century. All twelve tones of the chromatic scale are presented within the first 15 seconds in this work which prophesies the coming of Christ.

Some of the most extreme chromaticism -- often used to express emotional torment -- is found in the late madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). Gesualdo was a Sicilian aristocrat, as well as a notorious murderer. Indeed, his fame for ordering the killing of his first wife rivals his fame as the composer of madrigals so astonishing in their uncanny harmonies that they inspired Igor Stravinsky in 1960 to arrange three of them in his Monumentum pro Gesualdo. Karen Clark and Galax perform Beltà poi che t'assenti from the sixth volume of Gesualdo's madrigals.

The second half of Galax's program is devoted to new music and features two premieres: the world premiere of Roy Whelden's On the Petaluma River and the West Coast premiere of Joseph Schwantner's Dream Drapery: Thoreau Songs.

Inspired by one of Gary Snyder's poems, Whelden composed On the Petaluma River especially for this concert. Snyder's poem "For Anthea Corinne Snyder Lowry" is a lament for his sister, struck and killed by a car on US 101 south of Petaluma. Karen Clark and Galax have a prior relationship with Snyder's work, having recorded On Cold Mountain: Songs on Poems of Gary Snyder in 2011 (published by Innova, available on iTunes).

Schwantner's song cycle sets selections from Henry David Thoreau's nature poetry. "I was immediately drawn to the quartet's poignant, intimate and expressive sound world," Schwantner says. "Living and working in the high hills of rural New Hampshire, provided a synergy of poetry and music that formed an ideal union to help frame the mood, character and direction of this work."

The Galax Quartet has pioneered the use of ancient instruments for the performance of new music. Founded in 2005 by viola da gambist Roy Whelden, the quartet has performed new works by Marc Mellits, Carl Stone, Dan Becker, BeLinda Reynolds and Joseph Schwantner, among others. They have also used their instruments to provide new perspectives on old music, as in their performance of Bach's Art of the Fugue alongside Hubble Telescope images at the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival. The ensemble, which also includes violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and David Wilson alongside cellist David Morris, is modeled after an early version of the string quartet -- two violins, cello and viola da gamba -- developed by the eighteenth-century composer and viola da gamba virtuoso, Carl Friedrich Abel.

Like Galax, collaborator Karen Clark's musical interests span the ages from ancient to avant-garde. Medieval music has been a particular interest of the distinguished contralto, especially that of the great medieval nun, Saint Hildegard von Bingen, whose works she has championed and performed across the country and abroad. Clark's work in modern music ranges from Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, which she will perform at San Francisco's Concerts at Old First Church this April, to the premiere of Ben Johnston's microtonal Parable-Poems on Rumi.

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