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New Kids on the Block

February 11, 2006 - Chapel Hill, NC:


New string quartet ensembles are springing up like mushrooms after the rain. One of the newest is the Béla Quartet, formerly known temporarily as the "J" Quartet. Violinists Jennifer Curtis and Liza Zurlinden, violist Jason Fisher, and cellist Susan Babini are young emerging artists, freelancing musicians residing in New York. Curtis is a Chapel Hill native, and audiences here have heard her play before; she seemed to have quite a collection of fans in the sizable audience.

The Quartet has potential. All the players demonstrated phenomenal technique and great musicianship, but they also showed some rough edges that come from simply not having performed together long enough.

The program opened with Mozart's Quartet in B-flat, K.589, a late work of a pensive, autumnal quality that belies the composer's age (34), and which made it a suitable match for the final work on a program. Unfortunately, the Béla attacked it with a heavy hand, too much force, ragged attacks, especially in the opening of the menuetto, and general imprecision, the last perhaps indicating insufficient rehearsal time.

These problems disappeared, however, with the next work on the program, György Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1, subtitled "Metamorphoses Nocturnes." Ligeti (b.1923), one of Hungary's most prominent contemporary composers, composed his Quartet No. 1 in 1953-54 "for the bottom drawer." Hungary, under Communist rule, would not allow the creation, much less performance, of atonal works. Like Béla Bartók, Ligeti is greatly interested in Hungarian folk music and his Quartet No .1 was written under the influence of Bartók's Third and Fourth Quartets, which Ligeti knew only from having seen the scores. Bartók's quartets too were banned under the Communist regime as being elitist and not socially uplifting.

Ligeti's Quartet is in one movement but subdivided by numerous changes in tempo and mood. It is at times angry, reflective and sarcastic, the work of an "angry young man" who, considering the circumstances of his surroundings, had a lot to be angry about. It includes a distorted waltz (moderato, con eleganza, un poco capriccioso) that sounds like aberrant Gypsy fiddling, and an Andante tranquillo laced with eerie harmonics and little tranquility. The work did not see the light of day until Ligeti fled to Austria in wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Immediately from the opening bar I knew where the Béla's rehearsal time had gone. Their energy, technique and expressiveness projected the music as a powerful musical and political statement. It mesmerized the audience, few of whom appeared to have heard the work previously, but they were all swept away by the players.

For the final work on the program, UNC-CH's clarinetist Donald Oehler joined the Béla Quartet in a performance of Johannes Brahms' Clarinet Quintet. Oehler has a warm and fluid tone, and the gentle performance was only slightly marred by Curtis's excessive vibrato.

Considering the stiff competition in the field of string quartets, the Béla has a challenging road ahead. But the concert indicated that the players have an affinity for and the skill to carve out a niche in the "new" music market.