Monday, April 5, 2010

Agonies and Ecstasies

Agonies and Ecstasies

By Tom Wachunas

In its second concert (March 26 at Cable Rectal Hall) of the 2009-10 chamber music series presented by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), the Linden String Quartet (CSO Quartet-in Residence) offered an evening that was as intriguing as the first concert for its conceptual continuity of program order, though in some ways more challenging. The challenge was perhaps arguably more a test for the ears of the listeners than for the unquestionable skills of the musicians. As this concert so deftly demonstrated, if music has charms to soothe a savage breast, it can just as easily stir the savage beast.

The evening began with a warm, lively reading of Mozart’s String Quartet in E-flat major (1783). It became known as one of “The Haydn Quartets” because of that composer’s inspirational influence on the adoring Mozart. And while it’s true that Haydn had opened up a wholly new approach to the quartet genre by means of extended thematic developments and more expansive roles for second violin, viola, and cello, Mozart went to great lengths in taking those innovations to still more stratospheric heights. Here, the quartet revealed all the music’s transparent intricacies with world-class finesse and verve. And throughout, the players (Sarah McElravy, violin; Catherine Cosbey, violin; Eric Wong, viola; Felix Umansky, cello) sustained a tonal resonance suggestive of a much larger ensemble – a delightful quality they achieve in every work I’ve heard them perform.

Now that the clearly appreciative audience had been treated to such an elegantly served traditional confection, it was time for what some may have regarded as utterly foreign cuisine. In a programming choice somewhat reminiscent of the quartet’s first concert in Canton (wherein Bartok’s mischievous String Quartet No. 3 was inserted between Haydn and Beethoven), the next selection here was Alban Berg’s String Quartet, Opus 3.

The task of introducing the work went to violinist Catherine Cosbey. Disarmingly nervous and charming, she explained to the audience that the work was clear evidence that by 1910, when Berg composed the work, all bets in the classical music world of Vienna were off. A new, unfettered and explosive sort of expressionism was afoot, largely due to the influence of Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition technique. She described the Berg piece (Berg was a devoted Schoenberg student) as having a Mahlerian undercurrent juxtaposed with “brutal atonality,” adding that she and her cohorts hoped we would enjoy its beauty and dark drama.

I admit to being fairly non-conversant in the arcane terminology to be found in much of the literature regarding Schoenberg’s innovations and influence. Still, I’ve heard enough of such “modern” orchestral music to appreciate that it is an acquired taste, and one of which I am not, as a rule, overly fond. Having said that, I will tell you that the Berg work is replete with foreboding crescendos, tumultuous wailings, weepy bent notes, eerie “special effects,” and an otherwise pervasive, cinematic sense of impending disaster. Cosbey was right about the dark drama. This was an agonizing, marginally “lyrical” (to my ears) exercise in atonality.

Amazingly enough, though, hearing it performed live by this quartet, with electrifying abandon, was a truly riveting, even savory experience in the same way a terrifying thunderstorm (arguably “beautiful” in its own right) can grip your attention. As such, the performance was a memorable testament to this ensemble’s authentic passion for the music.

Played with equally commanding abandon, the final work on the program – Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor (1827) - brought fresh new meaning to the idea of leaving listeners smiling when they exit the hall. This was a rapturous interpretation of a significant work by a composer who understood Beethoven’s unique (and initially under-appreciated) contribution to the genre. The players brought all their formidable gifts to bear as they immersed us in the music’s ecstatic and searing pathos. It was an evening that ended thankfully not with a grimace, but grace.

Photo: The Linden String Quartet, courtesy Canton Symphony Orchestra: (left-to-right) Felix Umansky(cello), Catherine Cosbey (violin), Sarah McElravy (violin), Eric Wong (viola)

For information on upcoming performances by the Canton Symphony Orchestra, visit

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