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And the quartet played on -- and on, and on ...
Six hour marathon tests musicians, audience

by Rich Copley, Lexington Herald-Leader Arts Columnist

The following column about the performance of Feldman's 2nd String Quartet by the Flux Quartet on 3rd March, 2001, at the Norton Arts Center, Kentucky, USA, was originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday 4th March, 2001, City & Region Section, Page B1).

DANVILLE -- I knew how long the concert was going to be: six hours.

That begged all sorts of other "how long" questions.

How long before nature calls?

How long before the sandman calls?

How long before I start panting from thirst, like a dog in the desert?

How long before my growling stomach drowns out the musicians?

And how long would I go before I'd feel like a complete loser if I stepped out?

Yes, the Flux Quartet's performance of Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2 at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts was a concert. But walking in, it felt more like a long race, an exam or a day of fasting.

Unlike most other extra-long arts events, Feldman's quartet takes six hours, with no intermission.

What's more, it isn't like this is six hours of gripping drama.

This quartet is a quiet, minimalist composition with the performers slowly drawing their bows over their instruments' strings.

Fortunately, Flux threw all of the traditional expectations of classical music audiences out the window, so the audience (mostly students) was free to come and go, take naps, read books, even catch up on some paperwork while the quartet played.

I decided this week I'd try to stay for the whole thing, with no breaks. After all, this is only the third time this piece has been performed in the world. Why not be one of the few to hear it all?

2:12 p.m.: The performance started with no fanfare and 132 people in the audience.

The four musicians strolled onstage in black slacks and earth-tone, open-collar shirts and took the seats they'd occupy for the next six hours.

2:23 p.m.: Must fight sleep.

2:33 p.m.: A handful of patrons leaves.

3 p.m.: I might have taken a nap. Somehow, 20 minutes passed just like that.

3:12 p.m.: Several art students are sitting in the front row and sketching the musicians as they play.

Two students sit on a couch at the right side of the stage.

Ian Jones, a chemistry major from Monument, Colo., said he spotted the sofa in the Norton Center on Thursday and decided to haul it in.

3:48 p.m.: Violinist Tom Chiu has kicked off his shoes. The 125-page scores overwhelm the players' music stands. Many measures are repeated five to 13 times, Norton Center director George C. Foreman says.

5:12 p.m.: At the halfway point, about 70 people are still hanging on.

While there isn't a lot going on in this piece, three hours tells you it's really beautiful and haunting. It sounds like a quiet, cold winter afternoon in the country. That sounds like a nap, and that's my main problem.

5:25 p.m.: Whoa! Standing! What a difference that makes.

7:53 p.m.: A random thought: Why not yell "encore" when they're done?

8:03 p.m.: Cellist Cornelius Dufallo sits back in his chair with his eyes closed, chiming a note like a grandfather clock.

8:45 p.m.: Feldman's Quartet No. 2 ends after six hours and 33 minutes. Forty-two students stayed the whole time. The crowd for the final ovation is around 100. Dufallo leads the quartet in applause for the audience.

"This is definitely the greatest audience we've had for this," he says. "They were very respectful. They were right there with us."

You have to hand it to the Flux guys, too.

While we wiggled in our seats, read books and slept, they kept their eyes on the music and didn't look the worse for wear.

That they were so sharp for six hours with so many distractions is a testament to their concentration.

This concert might have been a novelty for its length, but it was still good music by top-flight musicians.

© Rich Copley 2001

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