The North Carolina Symphony String Quartet and Blursome
erforming Schubert’s Death and the Maiden
Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014
Kings, Raleigh

The near-capacity audience at Kings in Raleigh didn’t behave like a typical Thursday evening rock-club crowd, at least not at first. During the opening movement of Franz Schubert’s revered string quartet, Death and the Maiden, the room stood stock-still and in quiet concentration, watching and listening as the North Carolina Symphony String Quartet wound through the classic with rehearsed precision. Only a few minutes earlier, the audience had even listened attentively to an introduction from Karen Strittmatter Galvin, the North Carolina Symphony’s assistant concertmaster and first violinist. She told the room about the works the Symphony itself would play later in the week just down the street and about the repertoire standard they were about to hear. And with sincerity evidenced by her enthusiasm, she thanked the crowd for being there and for “taking a chance.”

What chance? And just what was the Symphony Quartet doing in a rock-and-electronics club on a Thursday night, anyway? The one-piece performance was meant to launch a nebulous, occasional series where members of the Symphony will re-contextualize landmarks with additions from outside instrumentalists, or even premiere new pieces. To enhance the dramatic allure of Death and the Maiden, Galvin, the night’s curator, recruited Blursome, a Raleigh electronic artist who passes spectral textures of field recordings around cavernous bass and languid melodies, together fading against the distance. (Read Galvin’s thoughts about the idea here.) Thinking about the original piece and the sounds of Blursome’s excellent debut EP, Heavy Resting, the assumption seemed that the computers and cords would help lift the swoops and sweeps of the Schubert and then reinforce the darker moments, perhaps even overpower them.

At points during last night’s performance, that’s exactly what happened. Galvin, violinist Jackie Wolborsky, violist Amy Mason and cellist Nathaniel Yaffe surrounded Blursome, seated behind a computer and beneath thick headphones. In the rests of one romantic moment, her pieces of an electronic arpeggio split the silence, trailing behind the strings like stardust. It felt both quixotic and mysterious. Later, Blursome shifted from low, restrained bass to a pitch that ascended as though riding an escalator. The volume seemed to climb over the Quartet’s collective back, adding a new manifestation of the danger that lurks so vividly throughout Death and the Maiden.

But these moments came only in passing. Throughout much of the performance, the Quartet and Blursome seemed to operate on different planes of comfort and assurance. The Quartet rode the piece with authority, not straining beneath its weight so much as holding it overhead, like championship weightlifters. They were loud and involved. But Blursome seemed to bend beneath the auspiciousness of the occasion, to lay back in the shadows when the situation demanded, if not a battle for the spotlight, then at least an even split of it. One friend remarked that it sounded as though a masterful quartet were playing Schubert very well, and an electronic musician was rehearsing a few rooms away. That seems a bit harsh, as the set’s best sets felt premeditated and smart, but the sentiment holds: The Quartet and Blursome never evolved into a Quintet.

That feeling crept through the crowd as early as the evening’s first pause. People, including Symphony conductor Grant Llewellyn, soon started chatting, filling the rock club with more than mere attention. But at least they mostly stuck around, intrigued to see if an irrefutably great idea ever fulfilled expectations.

It didn’t, but that’s OK. Keeping the symphony current is one of its most critical missions to meet the demands of its growing home, and last night’s performance took a big step in acknowledging that challenge. What’s more, the audience’s mix of aging orchestral regulars and the young and curious offered a wonderful glimpse into the possibilities of meeting the demand.

“Our goal with these concerts is to engage and support our musicians as (orchestral music) curators and take their lead in achieving our goal of continuing to innovate,” Symphony president and CEO Sandi Macdonald said today. “So yes, we will continue to innovate using different concert formats.”

Reimagining classical landmarks for modern audiences has been a vibrant creative endeavor of late, and it’s encouraging to see the NC Symphony join the conversation. Next time, though, the ancillary voice could stand to be a bit more commanding.