ELLIOTT MILES McKINLEY: String Quartet No.4, String Quartet No.5, String Quartet No. 6 – The Martinů Quartet – Navona Records NV 5855, 68:09 (Distr. by Naxos) ****:
Elliott Miles McKinley is based in Richmond. His music has been performed throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe and has been commissioned by a large number of well known ensembles including the Martinů Quartet of Prague, resulting in these present works. McKinley is a recipient of a number of awards and fellowships including a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, grants from Meet the Composer, the American Music Center, and the American Composers Forum. In 2009, McKinley was awarded a New Frontiers for the Arts and Humanities grant from Indiana University and has also received two Faculty Research Support Grants. Originally a student of jazz studies at the New England Conservatory, McKinley studied with Michael Daugherty and William Bolcom, among others. In 2010-2011 McKinley served as composer-in-residence at InverHills College in Minnesota. He is currently Chair of the Department of Music and Assistant Professor of Music and Informatics at Indiana University East.
These quartets are all very engaging and well-written additions to this staple genre. Each of these works is very attractive and has a slightly different feel. The String Quartet No. 4 from 2001 seems to owe a lot to McKinley’s jazz roots. The first movement, arioso, sets the tone for the whole work with its jaunty and blues inflected structures, featuring some nice moments for each instrument. The “presto vivace” is similarly propulsive and has a very nice lilting feel throughout. The third movement is curious in its title, “morbidamente con movemento”. While the tone is a bit more serious than the opening two movements, relying on minor, bluesy figures, I do not get any morbid feel from it. The effect, in fact, is charming; perhaps even a bit tongue in cheek as the “with movement” takes over the sound. The quartet closes with a brisk “allegro co brio” which opens with a set of pizzicato musings that bounce along, shared among the voices, until the movement gathers steam and the work closes with fine flourish. I found this a very nice work, a bit reminiscent of Bolcom in places, some Bartok–like “pushes” but ultimately a very original and captivating piece.
The String Quartet No. 5 is another terrific example of McKinley’s very eclectic style and also his apparent sense of humor. This quartet is divided into three parts, each of which has several sub-sections. There is an over arching structure similar to typical sonata form , in that some melodic and rhythmic materials from the “Part I” make their way into “Part III” and the “Part II” does present a nice bridge between the outer two. Some of the sub-sections’ titles do tell the story: “Slower, with a halftime feel”, “Still, with great breadth” and “With a touch of swagger” not only do dictate – and describe – what is to be played but the composer communicates in a very direct descriptive way. This work struck me as the most eclectic of the three on this disc. As I said, the work is structured, divided and titled in what seems like a very complex, heady manner. However, the overall structure is clean, coherent and – again – direct manner. These works do seem to communicate directly to the audience as well as to the player.
The Quartet No. 6, the last of the three Martinů Quartet commissions from 2010, is, structurally, more traditional. In four movements, “Introduction”, “Waltz and Scherzo”, “Chaconne” and Interlude and Conclusion”, this work features again some wonderful solo and ensemble writing and a harmonic palate that owes a little bit to traditional as well as modern sonorities. Each movement does carry a feel all its own and the movement titles – as in the fifth quartet – are both indicative as well as directive of what is to come. McKinley creates another very cohesive work in which a waltz can have some things in common with a chaconne and an “interlude” makes some reference to all other material including the scherzo (for example).
I am very pleased and impressed with Elliott McKinley’s quartets. I think that their best feature is that, actually, they almost defy analysis and must be described almost totally in emotional and artistic terms. These works are interesting and enjoyable to listen to, very cleverly written, and contain a very wide range of moods and draw from a very wide range of harmonic and structural options. If these works are indicative of most of Mr. McKinley’s other works, I am quite motivated to go find more! He is a new name to me but one well worth getting to know. Also, kudos – again – to Navona and the Parma group for providing very interesting and comprehensive packaging. The CD is an interactive disc where on you can see program notes, listen to examples and even print the whole score to each work! What I great way to get performers – not just listeners – to take interest in these works. Highly recommended!
— Daniel Coombs
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…