SMALL CHAMBER ENSEMBLE - Passing Through (2007) Program Notes:
The composer writes about Passing Through: "I spent the summer of 2007 at the Copland House, working on a short movement for the Guarneri Quartet. It was a unique opportunity to contemplate the contributions of these legendary artists who transformed concert music in America. I began thinking about what it means to live a life in music, to become part of its history, a permanent fixture in the firmament by whose light others find their way."
Bermel's piece opens with a six-bar quotation from the slow movement to Beethoven's final quartet, Op.135: Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo. (The tempo marking for Passing Through - Lento assai, cantabile et tranquillo - consciously acknowledges the Beethovenian model.) His movement is a meditation on Beethoven's cantabile theme, but delves deep within the chromatic and dramatic potential of that one gesture.
Bermel writes: "The commission was for a five-minute work, so within that short amount of time I wanted to present a miniature tribute to both the Guarneri and to Beethoven's final quartet. I imagined viewing this incredible work through a kaleidoscope, then shaking it after the first few measures; all the tiny pieces of plastic remain constant, but their placement has shifted, and a different image appears. I felt that the Guarneri's emotional connection to - and intimate understanding of - the thematic material would help empower this brief movement to illuminate another facet of the great Beethoven quartet."
Moving initially within the same sound world, Bermel gradually transforms Beethoven's theme. Episodes accelerate it to an angry pitch, disturbing its sublime tranquillity. Yet the gentle persuasion of the Beethoven reasserts itself, sweet and sturdy in the face of urgent atonal challenge. Bermel's ending is ambiguous. Are we to conclude that the two disparate styles can coexist peaceably? Or is he questioning the hegemony of the Beethovenian legacy? In the span of six minutes, Passing Through traverses nearly two centuries of string quartet writing, illustrating how the past begets the future.
-Laurie Shulman © (reprinted with permission)