The Brentano String Quartet broke out of the traditional chamber music programming groove to present a fascinating and frustrating mix of old and new for the opening concert of Music Toronto’s 41st season at the Jane Mallet Theatre on Thursday night.

What we heard covered 500 years of Western music, a fragmentary compilation of Old Master paired with living composer. It was a bold stroke on the part of Princeton University’s quartet in residence as a way to celebrate 20 years together.

The great hope for all involved was that the fragments would add up to more than the sum of their parts. Frequently during the 90-minute concert, they did — but not always.

Although the evening was consistently fascinating and played with remarkable poise, commitment and balance by violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Maria Lee, the pieces often left their audience adrift in a sea of musical ideas that were complementary in the eyes of a music analyst, but at odds to the ears of a listener.

Steinberg’s conceit for the whole enterprise was simple enough: To use incomplete pieces by great composers as inspiration for a 21st century creative response. In the programme notes, the violinist described his thinking as the kind of flight of fancy one might have in contemplating an unfinished piece of visual art, or the stone from which is beginning to emerge the shape of a sculpture.

But music is a fickle friend to such nebulous fantasies.

The oldest fragments came from Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, bits of early-Renaissance Mass threads woven into a new tapestry by veteran composer Charles Wuorinen. Because there was no separate old and new, Wuorinen’s Marian Tropes sounded whole, balanced and self-sufficient as the fascinating homage to 15th century polyphony faded in and out of focus under the composer’s deft pen.

Also carefully shaped and consistent was John Harbison’s exuberant new Finale for Joseph Haydn’s unfinished Op. 103 Quartet in D Minor. Although clearly from a different era in overall sound, the new movement didn’t stray far from Classical-era techniques and forms.

Interesting to hear, yet less satisfying aesthetically were Bruce Adolphe’s response to Franz Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C minor and Sofia Gubaidulina’s extravagantly painful continuation of J.S. Bach’s final Contrapunctus XVIII from The Art of the Fugue. Stephen Hartke wrote a response to a quartet movement by Dmitri Shostakovich that may have had a relationship to the original on paper, but failed to convey it in the hearing.

All three living composers each in their own way tacked their aesthetic onto the programme. That’s what Schubert wrote, Adolphe, Gubaidulina and Hartke seemed to say, but that was then and this is now.

The last piece of the evening, Vijay Iyer’s Mozart Effects, inspired by the shortest fragment of all, ranged and rambled freely once the composer had exploded Mozart’s final cadence in an act of creative repetition. It was nice that this particular act of descruction, followed by clever reconstruction, was laced throughout with a broad sense of humour, which is so apt with the music of Mozart (and Haydn).

On the whole, this was a programme that defies quick summary or analysis. It’s the product of much thought and carful assembly. Although the results were inconsistent, the exercise really did provide a fresh perspective on what we call the classical canon, and how distant its aesthetic often is from our own.

The bonus was hearing all of this at the hands of a superlative foursome, clearly deserving of the great reputation they currently enjoy.

John Terauds

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