The Western Piedmont Symphony presented its resident string quartet, La Catrina Quartet, in the second chamber concert of the 2008-2009 season at the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center. I was unable to attend the first concert of the season, so I looked forward to this first opportunity to hear the quartet with its new violinist, Blake Espy, who joined Daniel Vega-Albela, first violin, Jorge Martinez, viola, and Alan Daowz, cello, this past summer; more on that later.
The program opened with "Chrisantemi," a string quartet by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), one of the few non-operatic works he wrote. It was written as a funeral elegy to Amadeo of Savoy, Duke of Aosta. This is a doleful work, full of sadness and emotion, and the quartet played it with great pathos and strength.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote more than sixty string quartets, elevated the string quartet genre to the highest form of music. His String Quartet in C, Op. 65, No. 3 carries the nickname of "Emperor" because the second movement is based on the Austrian (and, later, also the German) national anthem "God Protect Emperor Franz." This melody also is used in the well known hymn "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken." The six quartets in Opus 76 are the culmination of Haydn's creative genius in this art form, and the quartet paid due homage to this great composer in their performance, from the opening allegro, through the very reverent hymn and the lyrical minuet, to the final abrupt chords and subsequent presto of the final movement, each member playing his part with great clarity and beauty.
The second half of the program opened with String Quartet No. 1 by Stephen Griebling (born 1932). Mr. Griebling was, until his recent retirement, a tire development engineer for Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. He is a self-taught composer, with a long list of works to his credit that have been performed throughout the United States and Europe. His string quartet was inspired by his admiration for Debussy and Ravel, and has a very French flavor. La Catrina Quartet is the recipient of a Bascom Little Fund Grant, which is given to outstanding artists to promote the works of living Ohio composers. They will soon be releasing a compact disc containing this and other Ohio works. Their performance was fresh and exciting, and makes one want to hear this quartet again and again.
The concert closed with one of the great masterpieces of string quartet literature, the String Quartet in F by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). In four movements, the quartet is full of lush melodies and tone colors, and strong rhythms, all masterfully combined to provide a sheer sensual pleasure in beautiful sounds. And, this is exactly what La Catrina Quartet provided. I have heard this quartet played many times, but never with such warmth and coherence as I did at this performance. This group breathed a life into the work that I had not previously heard.
The addition of Blake Espy to the group has elevated La Catrina's playing to a new level. Their playing is passionate and virtuosic, and each of the members is closely united to his associates so that, as a whole, they form a unified living, breathing organism. This has been a happy choice and wonderful addition to the group. We look forward to more great performances.