Now in its fourth year at the Morris Museum, the Lot of Strings festival has an improvisational feel and a dressed-down, laidback atmosphere that complemented the eclectic aesthetic of Ethel, the alternative string quartet that kicked off the fest’s 2023 season, July 18.
It was an intimate outdoor concert: Lot of Strings is part of the museum’s “Back Deck” summer concert series featuring acclaimed classical music and jazz ensembles. Its unique location — on an uncovered elevated parking lot — means atmospheric backdrops of sunsets, passing birds and wide-open skies.
Ethel’s style blends diverse artistic genres into a collaborative musical language full of color and texture. They play with exuberance, vocalizing freely and slapping their instruments percussively. They are even known to headbang, which happened at the Lot of Strings show during a magnetic performance of Led Zeppelin’s epic “Kashmir.” (The crowd-pleasing selection was a reprise from the ensemble’s Lot of Strings debut in 2021.)
Lot of Strings was founded in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Its setup was tailored to social distancing with seating partitioned into 8-by-8-feet squares drawn on the blacktop to accommodate up to two patrons. Guests are encouraged to bring their own chairs and aperitivo fixings. Many do.
“The most beautiful parking garage in the world,” joked Ethel violist Ralph Farris, gesturing with his bow (embellished with red glitter) at the vast greenery of Morris County beyond the parking deck. Farris and cellist Dorothy Lawson are co-artistic directors and co-founders of the New York-based group. Violinists Kip Jones and Corin Lee take up the lighter strings.
The foursome has performed together for 25 years and their convivial chemistry reflects the long journey. The program celebrated career highlights through original compositions, lively arrangements, new collaborations and old favorites, introduced by each artist with rich, heartfelt anecdotes.
Marcelo Zarvos’ “Arrival,” which kicked off the evening, has been a signature Ethel opener for more than 20 years and one of their most performed pieces. Zarvos wrote the cross-genre work for the group; its mashup of styles epitomizes their pancultural musical traditions.
A handful of pieces showed off the compositional prowess of the musicians, all of whom have backgrounds in traditional classical music. Jones presented a Celtic jaunt that was modeled on traditional Irish dance music. His imaginative, experimental folk style was built on mid-register melodies of energetic strings and the glorious richness of Lawson’s sustained cello notes.
Lee led the ensemble in “Seat47C,” one of his compositions written for a multimedia project created by Ethel in 2018 called “Circus: Wandering City.” The work — commissioned by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida — was inspired by the museum’s archival images and interviews with retired performers. The piece opened with a poignant chord that gave way to optimistic triplets. Jaunty themes and keen rhythms represented the spectacle and energy of a big-top circus as imagined by a child.
Farris’ compositional showpiece was “Promise,” a melancholy but hopeful new work of evolving and engaging rhythms that built to an inspiring crescendo. It was commissioned by Laura Lou Levy (who was in the audience) in remembrance of her late son.
These works represented some of the deep connections and meaningful collaborations forged by the group over the decades. Their latest collaboration was with guest vocalist Julia Crafton; the 17-year-old singer-songwriter was invited to share two of her original works of musical theater in a spirited, emotive performance.
“Fearless” — arranged by her mother Amy Crafton — was an earnest anthem to women’s rights and to those who “choose to be fearless.” Farris’ viola lines added weight and profundity to the powerful message of solidarity. “Royal Street” was a bluesy, soulful work inspired by time spent in New Orleans with the New York Youth Symphony for a musical theater songwriting program. Crafton noticed an unhoused man sitting beneath a sign that read “Royal Street” and her lyrics imagined his past life.
The tribute to the Great American Songbook included languid arrangements of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” and George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
A set of songs by rock artists highlighted the group’s breadth of vibrant textures and experimental music styles. Lee introduced the works — The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and a Janis Joplin medley, in addition to “Kashmir” — and mentioned that they were all songs his father loved to listen to on the radio when he drove him to high school.
In the Joplin arrangements by Farris, the violins used scraping and scratching techniques to explore a range of psychedelic colors. The effect was muddled and grungy, full of friction and metallic textures that matched the sultry, sweaty haze of the summer dusk beyond the deck.
Quieter, more meditative moments of the evening included a selection of Philip Glass’ delineated, repetitive music (“The Poet Acts” and “Morning Passages”) from Stephen Daldry’s film “The Hours.”
Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack music from Roland Joffé’s film “The Mission” closed the concert. Farris’ arrangement was woven around Morricone’s popular “Falls” theme with some rare moments of quiet codas between the organic bowing. In the final movement, Jones tapped out a percussive beat with the back of his bow across his chin rest and made improvisational vocalizations set to the liturgical chorales from “Gabriel’s Oboe.”
Jones explained that Morricone’s themes began in dissonance and ended in consonance, and wished the audience the same proverbial journey through life.
Upcoming performers in the Lot of Strings festival at the Morris Museum in Morris Township include the Dover Quartet, July 22; the Black Oak Ensemble, Aug. 3; and the Galvin Cello Quartet, Aug. 26. Visit morrismuseum.org.
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