The Opal String Quartet appeared Sunday afternoon at the Reuter Center of the University of North Carolina Asheville to perform two large works, Brahms' Quintet No. 2 and Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 5.
Amy Lovinger (first violin), Kara Poorbaugh (viola), and Franklin Keel (cello) are all Eastman School of Music graduates who play in the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. Lovinger is ASO principal second violin and Poorbaugh is ASO principal viola. Ginger Kowal, the fourth member of the quartet, is a precocious young violinist in the ASO since age thirteen. The four rehearse together regularly and perform the classical repertoire as well as avant-garde works. The only contemporary work Sunday was the encore, "Waterfall with Blenders," a whimsical composed-jazz work introduced by the Turtle Island Quartet, the leading proponents of jazz for quartets. The work has some delightful riffs for violin and viola duo as well as solo passages that remind one of Stefan Grapelli.
Augmented by violist Gina Caldwell (also an ASO member), the ensemble opened with the late Brahms work for two violins, two violas, and cello. In his symphonies, Brahms wrote middle voices that create a texture that is one of his endearing characteristics. He found that five strings provide a similar possibility for complexity. The task for the chamber players is to produce all the intricacy without losing the long line of the piece. On Sunday, the second movement (Adagio) was especially successful in this regard. Close harmony by the five was followed by an eloquent viola solo, and when the introspective close harmony recurred towards the end of the movement, I found myself anticipating the lyrical viola solo that followed. I reveled in the way that Poorbaugh delivered those solos. After the Hungarian-tinged Allegretto, the final movement was taken at a fast clip. The movement is marked "Vivace ma non troppo presto," and it was certainly played with vivacity. I debated if it was perhaps too fast, but when the players reached the final passage, they were fully capable of providing the necessary accelerando. It was a very satisfying rendering.
The Shostakovich Fifth String Quartet uses a five-note motif — C, D, E-flat, B, C-sharp — based on the composer's initials. The motif dominates all three movements, which are performed without pause. Shostakovich walked a thin line in his pieces for large ensemble and was twice denounced as not producing proper "Soviet" music. After a 1936 Stalinist denunciation, he wrote his first string quartet, and from that time on he used chamber music to express his inner feelings. In program notes for the Sierra Chamber Society, Joseph Way describes the Fifth Quartet (written in 1952 and premiered after Stalin's 1953 death) as containing anger, irony, passion, lyricism, and contemplative solitude. To these emotions, the Opal String Quartet added wistfulness, mourning and flippancy. A lot was offered, but somehow the performance did not satisfy.
Perhaps the answer lay in the audience. In reviewing a recorded set of the complete Shostakovich quartets, W. Mark Roberts says (at the DSCH web site), "The Emerson Quartet consider the audience to play an active role in performance of Shostakovich's quartets," a belief that led them to record before a live audience. Music constitutes communication between composer and performer, on the one hand, and the audience, on the other hand. On Sunday, the performers tried to deliver, but the audience did not receive the message. A lady knitted throughout the work using large needles that flashed into my field of vision. Across the aisle a man slept. And while most of the audience gave a standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance, I don't believe they really got it.
An abbreviated repeat performance (the Shostakovich and the first movement only of the Brahms) is scheduled for Wednesday, January 30, at 12:45 p.m. in the Lipinsky Auditorium. Maybe that audience will get it next time.