HAmong this year’s anniversaries is the centenary of Charles Mingus’ birth – 2022 also marks 50 years since the first performance of his String Quartet No. 1, commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of a program celebrating poet Frank O’Hara.
The piece, for voice and string quartet (violin, viola and two cellos), was premiered in Europe only three years ago. It’s more Bartók than blues, a compressed squiggle of diligent counterpoint that stays constantly entangled for about 10 minutes. Opening Round’s Sounds of Now series, new music group Apartment House and Elaine Mitchener gave a relatively simple account of this expressive and sometimes passionate work. I would be intrigued to hear a more languorous rendition – perhaps on a long-awaited debut recording.
It was the only small disappointment in a moving hour of music drawn mostly from the American experimental music tradition. In a post-concert talk, Mitchener underscored the centrality of the struggle to the program’s featured poets – from the rantings of Susan Griffin in Christian Wolff’s I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman, to the provocations of Jeanne Lee in the striking Blasé du saxophonist Archie Shepp. Lee’s Mingus Meditations – a duet for voice and double bass, originally recorded with Dave Holland – was a real treat, with nimble bass work from the impressive Neil Charles backing up Mitchener’s characterful chatter.