All Hail Hailstork’s String Quartets

Hailstork front

HAILSTORK: 3 Spirituals: We Shall Overcome; Kum Bah Yah; Great Day. Eslanda Dances. String Quartet No. 2, Variations on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” String Quartet No. 3. String Quartet No. 1: II. Adagio / Ambrosia Quartet / Albany TROY1680

I’m always open to new music I haven’t heard before by Adolphus Hailstork, since everything I’ve heard to date has been first-rate. This new album encompasses much of his music for string quartet, played by the Ambrosia Quartet from Virginia. Formed in 2002, all the musicians are members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

Most of this disc consists of Hailstork’s settings of spirituals. The first three, fairly brief, are developed in traditional classic style, i.e. the opening melody of We Shall Overcome is followed by a fantasia in triplets played by one of the violins à la Bach while cello plays pizzicato notes on beats 1 and 3 and the other two strings play around it. The effect is mesmerizing, not at all what one might expect when it begins. By contrast, Kum Bah Yah is a slow, beautiful canon in which he uses Gospel harmonies while Great Day, with its strong rhythm (almost like a cakewalk) features a syncopated figure played by the viola and second violin around which the first violin and cello play exuberant variations.

The Eslanda Dances were composed as a tribute to Paul Robeson’s wife, Eslanda “Essie” Cardozo Robeson, an anthropologist who saw many exotic tribal folk dances. The music here, though original and written in a simple style to reflect what she might have heard, is developed in a quite sophisticated manner. Interestingly, I found the music much closer related to American folk dances than those in foreign countries, but once again the music is developed with rigorous attention to form and detail. The third dance, marked “Adagietto,” is particularly interesting and the least American-like of the group, using some surprisingly advanced harmonic movement and an unusual rhythmic figure played throughout by the viola. Gospel harmony is evoked once again in the final “Adagietto.”

The String Quartet No. 2, based on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, is undoubtedly the most complex of all his spiritual pieces on this CD. Hailstork pulls out all the stops here, literally (in the playing of the strings) and figuratively, turning the simple tune into something quite complex. In his very brief comments on this piece, Hailstork writes that the theme is “interrupted by abrupt dissonant chords that serve as ‘fate motifs’ to remind the listener that the ‘carry me home’ in the spiritual text is an end of life request.” What continually amazes me with Hailstork’s music is how the formal devices never sound cluttered or affected, as if he is just trying to impress the listener with cleverness. All of it comes from the heart, and I daresay that if you were to start playing this music after the theme is stated you might not even realize for some time what piece it is based on. The development section becomes quite involved as the piece goes on, ending with a quiet resolution representing acceptance.

The most substantial work on the CD is the three-movement String Quartet No. 3. Here the spiritual allusion does not appear until the last movement, which is based on There is a Balm in Gilead, yet even in the first movement, marked “Moderato sostenuto,” Hailstork’s original theme has certain spiritual-like qualities. This movement, very slowly and elegantly developed, is less technical and more mood-oriented than most of the other music on this disc. The lively second movement has a strong, dance-like beat, but is in an irregular meter (it sounds to me like 7/8, 6/8 with an extra beat at the end of each bar) which makes it more for listening than dancing. Throughout all of this music, the Ambrosia Quartet plays with great style and lively energy, and this shows particularly in movements like this. Typically of Hailstork, the last movement does a good job of concealing the original theme somewhat, swathed as it is in interesting chord positions and diverse meters.

The quartet chose to include only the second movement of Hailstork’s String Quartet No. 1. It’s a lovely “Adagio,” but I would have liked to have heard the entire piece. Nonetheless, the heartfelt performance given here makes a fine close to a disc devoted to Hailstork’s chamber works.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “All Hail Hailstork’s String Quartets

  1. Rebecca says:

    Hi, Ambrosia Quartet cellist here. Would you like for me to post your review on our
    website? I thought you’d like to know that we are interested in that.


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