String Quartet No. 2, “Bergonzi”

String Quartet (viola dbl prayer bowl, scordatura cello)

Duration: c. 18 minutes

I. Nubia -hear excerpt

II. Sacre - hear excerpt

III. Intermezzo - hear excerpt

IV. Scherzo - hear excerpt

Thomas Sleeper’s String Quartet No. 2, the “Bergonzi,” was written for and named after the Bergonzi String Quartet. Structurally, the work is not unlike the mythological creature that consumes its own tail – the uroboros. The quartet begins and ends in the same musical and emotional space - the grand improvisation of our brief lives.

The first movement, Nubia, begins like an improvisation between the members of the quartet. Rapid figures intertwine and echo in the sound space trying to coalesce. Eventually the quartet stabilizes with a pulsing (albeit asymmetrical) background and simple melody that builds in the manner of a popular song. At what would be a climactic moment of resolution, the music suddenly falls into dissolution and returns to its original roots, thrust to its conclusion with a ferocious unison theme.

The second movement, Sacre, finds the violist playing not viola, but a 200 year old Tibetan prayer bowl. Muted violins join in the mysterious atmosphere which surrounds what is essentially a passionate aria for solo cello

.The Intermezzo plays with rhythmic deceptions and is in a simple ABA form. The idea that our perception of place is altered by time and experience is central to this movement. The “B” section is a varied duet from an incomplete opera of mine based on W. H. Auden’s Purgatory. The “A”section returns now slower and with plucked strings. It ends not unlike a music box winding down.

The final Scherzo (actually the first movement of the quartet to be written) is a rollicking frenzy that quotes the other three movements of the work in new contexts. There are also formal allusions to all three of the previous movements creating a sense of déja-vu.


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Sleeper's String Quartet No. 2, subtitled Bergonzi in dedication, is a characteristically eclectic work. Like much of Sleeper's creative output,the music explores a range of styles, yet remains approachable and immediately communicative. Though the Bergonzi Quartet has no specific program, the four-movement work suggests world-music inspiration in its subtitles and some of its elements.A forceful Allegro opens the "Nubia" movement, driven and edgy with grinding tutti chords. Pizzicato and busy cross-rhythms come to the fore in the "Intermezzo," while the concluding "Dance" is charged with restless rhythmic energy, leading to a propulsive and vehement conclusion.Yet most interest centers on the second movement, subtitled "Sanctus." Here Sleeper has violist Pamela McConnell produce a kind of ground bass by rubbing the rim of a Tibetan prayer bowl with a pestle-like device. The effect conjures up a soft, unearthly low B that seemed to echo from the far corners of the concert hall. That haunting, ethereal sound provides the backdrop for spare, broken notes in the violins, leading to more ardent passages including an expressive cello solo, well played by Ross Harbaugh. In its hushed power and offbeat sound world, this is the quartet's most striking and inventive music. Utilizing a second, low-tuned cello, Harbaugh produces a low B at the coda, matching the bowl's sound and providing an effective spiritual coalescing.The Bergonzi musicians gave the work an eloquent first performance.Sleeper's surely crafted work manages to be traditional yet innovative, and deserves wider advocacy. But how many string quartets have an extra tuned cello and a spare Tibetan prayer bowl available?

South Florida Sun-Sentinel - October 2001 , Larry Johnson

Thomas Sleeper's mystic String Quartet No. 2, introduced to the world by the Bergonzi Quartet Sunday at UM's Gusman Hall, is in four fascinating, compact movements. Nubia had strings trading a relentlessly quick rhythmic figure,the violins in ardent dialogue. The spooky Sanctus opens a la Ives'Unanswered Question, but the cello chants a kind of yearning prayer, as if warding off a B-natural drone sustained by the violist's rubbing the rim of a bowl, that tone resonated later by a detuned cello. There were no program notes, so I don't know Sleeper's symbolism, but B-natural was the``forbidden'' tone, which in conjunction with F in the F-major tetrachord formed the dreaded medieval diabolicus in musica. The third movement, a Bartokian Intermezzo, was followed by a rapid-fire Dance finale. It's highly intriguing, this new Sleeper score.

Miami Herald - October 2001, James Roos