The Degas Quartet concluded its official residency with the Western Piedmont Symphony with the Friends of the Quartet Chamber Series concert on Saturday, April 22, at the Arts and Science Center in Hickory, NC. Not to fear, though – the quartet will return on May 19th for the symphony's chamber music festival, appearing with the Fry Street Quartet, and again at the end of next season in both masterworks and chamber concerts.
Andrew Waggoner's brief quartet Every Sentient Being opened the program. Waggoner (b.1960) is currently Composer in Residence at the Setnor School of Music at Syracuse University. He has won several awards and has had commissions from many major symphony orchestras and string quartets.
Every Sentient Being was commissioned by the Rochester Zen Center and was composed in 2000. The title comes from the Upanishads, the ancient scriptures underlying both Buddhism and Hinduism. It reflects a basic tenet of morality: the obligation to protect and honor every being that has a consciousness. For the composer, this music is a meditation, as is the practice of Zen.
The work is very short, very modern in tonality, and to me, enigmatic. It feels as if it needs further development or, at least, another listening. But, perhaps, this is the point. It is fleeting, like an idea. The performance was solid and sure and left me wanting more – in this case, a good thing.
Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) was England's most important composer from the 1920s to the 1950s. He composed extensively in almost every musical genre except, interestingly, chamber music. He was one of the great setters of English poetry, and vocal music comprised a large part of his output. For its presentation of On Wenlock Edge, the Degas Quartet was joined by Michiko Otaki, piano, and Kurt-Alexander Zeller, tenor.
On Wenlock Edge is a song cycle of six poems by A.E. Housman. The poems describe the nature walk of Wenlock Edge, troubles and anxiety, tolling of the bells at Bredon Hill, and love. Zeller sang the songs with clarity and ably exhibited and expressed each of the many emotions described by the poet. The piano and string quartet provided deft musical collaboration. Most memorable was the constant tolling of the bell on Bredon Hill, calling the people to church.
The program concluded with String Quartet No. 1 in E-Flat, Op. 12, by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47). It was composed two years after his "Second" quartet but was published first, thus the number "One." Mendelssohn was a genius of extraordinary dimensions, having reached musical maturity at age sixteen. He was only twenty when he composed this quartet. It was written during a trip to England and Scotland, which also provided the inspiration for his "Scottish" Symphony and "The Hebrides" Overture.
The opening movement bears the unmistakable mark of Beethoven's influence. The second movement begins and ends with a delicate and quiet march framing a central section that is very reminiscent of an Irish jig or a Scottish reel. Perhaps his trip to the British Isles was an influence. The third movement is a brief song without words, leading into a whirlwind finale. The Degas Quartet played this quartet as if they had been performing it together for years. In fact, this was their first performance. Their accuracy, alacrity, and dexterity were nearly perfect, their notes shaped to the musical demands of the piece. As an encore, they repeated the second movement. They played this so well that it was later suggested by an audience member that they adopt this as their signature encore – not a bad idea.
The Degas Quartet is to be congratulated on presenting a season of fine chamber music from the standard as well as the not-so-familiar repertoire. Their presence in Hickory will be missed although certainly not forgotten. They are wished every success in their future endeavors.