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  • Mission Viejo, CA
...“Fiddle States” by Matthew Tommasini (he is a co-founder of this series), a lively bluegrass mash-up for two violins.
— Tim Mangan (OC Register)

The string quartet, amplified, in Mission Viejo

By TIMOTHY MANGAN / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Orange County has itself a new professional classical music series whether it wants one or not. It’s called the Connections Chamber Music Series and it features the California Quartet, a string quartet that’s been around since 2000 and that includes three members of the Pacific Symphony among its players.

Saturday night, I decided to check out the third program in the inaugural Connections series, held at the Norman P. Murray Community and Senior Center in Mission Viejo. I was delighted and surprised both by the playing and the agenda, which presented a stimulating collection of recent American works for amplified string quartet and pre-recorded performance tracks.

These musicians are trying to do something different. Rather than rehash the same old chamber music repertoire (which is pretty well served here anyway), they are offering tightly knit thematic programs devoted to 20th and 21st century repertoire. Saturday’s program, dubbed “American Roots and Rhythms,” brought together music by Steve Reich, John Adams, Michael Daugherty, Matthew Tommasini (all living composers) and Samuel Barber (the 100th anniversary of his birth is this month).

The California Quartet – Bridget Dolkas and Jeanne Skrocki, violins; Pam Jacobson, viola; Lars Hoefs, cello – is a terrific group. It played everything with proficient technique, sound intonation and a unified outlook. It also mustered a considerable amount of steam.

The room at the Murray Center in which the group performed is perhaps a little less than ideal. It’s bright, new and clean, with an attractive wood-floored proscenium stage and portable seating for the audience. The acoustics, I think, are a little too active, though, and the background hum of air conditioning dogged both the beauty of tone and the immediacy of the playing. Fortunately, these two problems can be dealt with in various ways.

The program opened with Reich’s “Different Trains,” a haunted piece for string quartet and pre-recorded sound track. The title is literal: The piece is a remembrance of the composer’s childhood train trips in this country and some very different train trips taken by others in Europe at the same time, to concentration camps. We hear the sounds of trains on the sound track, three other burbling string quartets, and the voices of the composer’s governess, a retired Pullman porter and Holocaust survivors. Their words are heard in snippets, and looped, and these clipped phrases form the basis for melody and rhythm in the piece, which the players onstage echo and prefigure.

This shining and solemn work was followed, without pause, by Barber’s “Adagio,” which has become our country’s unofficial anthem for mourning. It was an effective piece of programming.

The second half of the concert was lighter in spirit, and equally well played. It opened with “Fiddle States” by Matthew Tommasini (he is a co-founder of this series), a lively bluegrass mash-up for two violins. Five movements of Adams’ “John’s Book of Alleged Dances,” for amplified string quartet and a soundtrack of prepared piano, followed, giving us look at the composer at his sardonic best, rhythmically intricate and high energy. The piece snaps, crackles and pops merrily.

Then hilarity ensued, in the form of Daugherty’s cheeky “Elvis Everywhere,” for string quartet and, on the sound track, a baritone sax and three very good Elvis impersonators. The impersonators sing and speak à la Elvis, using his choicest phrases. Elvis was with us, jumping back and forth in counterpoint on the speakers, the musicians taking up his rhythms, playing the blues, and reacting sassily and sympathetically. The California Quartet captured all its verve. Thank you very much.

The group’s concerts in Encinitas, I’m told, are packed. This one in Mission Viejo was otherwise. Orange County chamber music fans unite. This is a worthy series (and tickets are reasonable). The next concert, at 7 p.m. April 23, freeway-close in Mission Viejo, offers music by Revueltas, Ginastera, Villa-Lobos and Tommasini. You’ve been duly notified.