Dust to dust: River Oaks Chamber players capture Huang Ruo’s ephemeral “Time”

Sat Nov 20, 2021 at 2:14 pm
By Steven Brown
Sandy Yamamoto of River Oaks Chamber Orchestra performing Huang Ruo’s “A Dust in Time” on Friday in Houston. Photo: Pin Lim/Forest Photography

Buddhist monks represent the universe through an artwork called a mandala. In a ritual that spans days, they first shape colored sand into the intricate geometric design that comprises the mandala; they then dismantle it all just as carefully and disperse the sand.

Composer Huang Ruo aims to mirror that symbolic sequence in his A Dust in Time, the hourlong stream of sound that a string quartet from the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra spun out Friday at Houston’s Asia Society Texas Center. Ruo writes in his program note that his quartet, like the mandala, embodies “the spiritual and life cycle … of traveling from nothing (emptiness) to something (fullness), and then back to nothing (emptiness). … By going through this entire journey, what will remain afterwards is the fulfillment and internal peace laying in the heart.”

Since Ruo himself straddles cultures — he was raised in China, then trained in the United States — it may be only fitting that his homage to the venerable Buddhist symbol draws on the venerable Western form of the passacaglia. But A Dust in Time unfolds on a bigger scale than anything Europeans created during the form’s baroque-period heyday. Can anyone think of an 18th Century passacaglia that lasts an hour?

The repeated theme that underlies a typical passacaglia from back then might be as brief as four or eight measures, and it might consist of a simple bass line — like the one that spawns J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor for organ, one of the best-known examples. A Dust in Time’s theme unfolds over two to three minutes as a conversation between the cello and viola.

In the theme’s first half, the two instruments exchange two- or three-note phrases that mainly establish a spacious tempo and an air of hushed stillness. In the second half, the lines grow more sustained, and the viola supplies a framework that will blossom into a melody as the work progresses.

A first variation develops the theme subtly, and after that the violins finally enter. They adopt the same muted tone, but add a lilting, gentle motion, and the music’s buildup continues from there.

Nothing as theatrical as a crescendo occurs; instead, the music becomes more sonorous and vibrant as each variation adds something fresh. The violin parts move higher, lending the sound a new gleam. The melody in the theme’s second section appears and evolves, adding dashes of fervor as different instruments take it up. The instrumental lines grow more flowing—not in a virtuosic, showy way, but so as to enhance the music’s fullness and vibrancy. 

At the peak, the quartet pours out sonorities that are almost iridescent as the violins intertwine on high and arpeggios redouble the music’s richness. Ruo’s program note salutes the “colorful … world created by sands” that a mandala conjures up at its full extent, and the music’s climax lives up to that grandeur.

Then it all subsides just as gradually. The motion tapers off, the textures become simpler, the violins descend from the heights and the sounds soften. A surprise comes as the cello drops out for a couple of stretches, leaving the others to bring the music a new, veiled color. 

When the violins fall silent, the cello and viola end A Dust in Time much as they began it. The final notes hang in the air as if the journey could start all over.

A Dust in Time came across so potently Friday thanks to the commitment and command of violinist Scott St. John — the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s concertmaster — and violinist Sandy Yamamoto, violist Lorento Golofeev and cellist Shino Hayashi.

At the outset, where the hushed and transparent texture left the players so exposed, a bump or two cropped up in the cello part. But as the players settled in, they kept the music transparent and alive. They intoned the first variations spaciously, spun out long-breathed lines as the music blossomed, and lavished red-blooded sound on the music’s climax.

They scaled it all back just as adroitly for the downhill journey. St. John’s knack for giving impact even to short, quiet phrases — where his sound’s focus and intensity belied the low volume level — paid particular dividends, helping keep the atmosphere from going slack. 

And violist Golofeev, the only musician who had to play an hour without so much as lowering his bow, let no signs of fatigue break the aura. One wonders if the Buddhist monks need that kind of stamina with their funnels of sand.

River Oaks Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Scott St. John and violinist Pasha Sabouri will play a program of duos 5 p.m. Feb. 5 at Houston’s MATCH. roco.org

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