Friday, September 25, 2009

The Power of Four

The Power of Four

by Tom Wachunas

Linden String Quartet, Cable Recital Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 11.9.2009, (TW)

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 76 (1796-7)
Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 3 (1927)
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 59 (1805-6)

The Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has greatly enhanced what already promises to be a marvelous season with the recent appointment of the Linden String Quartet as its Quartet-in-Residence. The appointment is at the heart of the CSO program to promote Classical music and string playing through various educational presentations in regional schools. Formed in the spring of 2008 by members of the professional chamber ensemble CityMusic Cleveland, the Linden String Quartet won the 2009 Grand Prize and Gold Medal in the prestigious Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition (the largest in the world), as well as the Coleman-Barstow prize at the 2009 Coleman National Chamber Ensemble Competition.

After hearing the Quartet’s inaugural Canton concert (opening the CSO Casual Friday concert series) on September 11, it was easy to understand that such accolades were well deserved. This is an astonishing chamber ensemble, and its presence here marks nothing less than a local cultural milestone.

One immediately intriguing aspect of the concert was the continuity of the musical selections – a continuity not in chronology, but in conceptual terms. The Haydn quartet, first on the program, is among the composer’s most ambitious, written at a time when his instrumental sensibilities were at their peak. As such it was a seminal influence on Beethoven, who would begin composing his own quartets just a few years later. His quartet closed the program here. Placed between the two was the thoroughly modern-sounding Bartok, reminding us with a jolt, perhaps, that he is nonetheless still generally appreciated as the most important contributor to the string quartet genre since Beethoven. Kindred spirits of a sort, both composers consistently and radically expanded the form in their passionate search for new musical expressions.

Thus the imaginative programming laid a solid foundation for showcasing the Quartet’s remarkable depth of technique and brilliantly nuanced, sumptuous tonality. And all of the music on this occasion was delivered with a palpable, infectious joy.

The Quartet’s playing of the Haydn allegro exuded all the delicate grace intrinsic to the music, and was equally confident in delivering the adagio’s cadenza-inspired passages. The performance of the ebullient finale was a gem of show-stopping panache.

Violist Eric Wong then regaled the audience with his humorous but concise introductory comments on Bartok’s complex musical mischief, describing, for example, the allegro movement as “very fast, with some head-banging.” With electrifying and gleeful precision, the Quartet proceeded to execute Bartok’s dense, kaleidoscopic range of percussive effects and thrilling tonal acrobatics. The 15-minute work elicited a considerable number of pleasantly startled looks, and murmurs of delight from the audience.

Violinist Sarah McElravy warmly introduced the Beethoven piece with an informed grasp of its significance in history as well as its sheer musical power. Indeed, the Quartet demonstrated an uncanny ability to sound downright symphonic, particularly in rendering the second movement’s dreamlike atmosphere, as well as the jaunty dance energy of the presto finale.

What resonated, too, was McElravy’s poignant observation of Beethoven’s response to critics of the day who reacted unfavorably to the evolving formal innovations in his quartets. “Oh, they are not for you,” he said on one occasion, “but for another age.” As evidenced by the standing ovation here, that age is clearly our own.

Tom Wachunas

Photo by Josef Samuel for the Fischoff National Chamber Music Association.

The Linden String Quartet (left-to-right): Eric Wong, viola; Sarah McElravy, violin; Catherine Cosbey, violin; Felix Umansky, cello

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