The Kontras Quartet presented the final chamber concert of its spectacular first season as Quartet-in-Residence of the Western Piedmont Symphony at the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center. Lest anyone think that chamber concerts have to be stiff and dull, they haven't yet met the Kontras Quartet.
The program opened, as has become their custom, with the players presenting a short introduction and explanation of the music to be heard, a session as entertaining as it is informative.\
When the musicians had finished, the stage was stripped bare with the exception of two lone music stands. Shortly thereafter, just two musicians reappeared - Dmitri Pogorelov, violin, and Ai Ishida, viola - to perform the Passacaglia in G minor for Violin and Viola by George Frideric Handel 1685-1759) in an arrangement by the Norwegian composer John Halvorsen (1864-1935). The work was played in the traditional Baroque style, the musicians standing rather than sitting. This piece was arranged by Halvorsen from the last movement of a suite that Handel had written for harpsichord. A passacaglia is a series of variations on a theme, repeated multiple times. Pogorelov and Ishida played this very demanding work that requires two instruments to sound like four with great precision and ease.
And then there were three when Jean Hatmaker, on the cello, joined Pogorelov and Ishida to play the String Trio in B-flat, D.471, by Franz Schubert. This is a single-movement work, as Schubert never completed any of the other movements. It is in a conventional classical form, with two themes, and followed by a long coda, ending in a colorful final cadence. The three players brought the 19-year-old Schubert's music to life as surely as it was when originally written.
Finally, the full quartet appeared on stage, Francois Henkins, violin, joining the other three, to play Bela Bartók's (1881-1945) String Quartet No. 3. Bartók was Hungarian, and he used folk song themes in a lot of his music, including this quartet. His works are not easy to listen to, and this piece is no exception. He uses lots of discords and bizarre sounds and textures to make his point. The third quartet is in a single movement, with four sections. The first two are dark and brooding, and then the third section opens up to some light, which proceeds onto a furious concluding coda. The presentation of this very technically demanding piece was no less than virtuosic and surprisingly musical, given the difficult textures, rhythms, and sounds required of the players by the composer.
And then there were five for the pièce de résistance of the evening, Schubert's Quintet in C, D.956. Marc Johnson, cello, joined the quartet to complete the ensemble. Johnson was, for 35 years, cellist with the famed Vermeer Quartet. Since the quartet's retirement in 2007, he has been on the faculty of Boston University.
Schubert was just weeks from his death when he composed the C major quintet, considered by some to be the greatest chamber work ever written. This is a large work, taking about 55 minutes to play. The first movement, the longest, achieves almost symphonic proportions with its distinct themes. The third movement is a lusty scherzo wrapped around a calm trio. The fourth movement is an allegretto that is reminiscent of Eastern European dances. It is the second movement though, an adagio, which is so remarkable. The violin maintains the theme over a subdued background of the other instruments, with the cello playing a gentle pizzicato. The effect is like a pipe organ accompanying a prayer. This tranquility is interrupted by a disturbed middle section before returning to the opening theme. Whether Schubert was aware that his death was approaching is not known, but this movement could certainly point to this end. The seeming simplicity of this movement requires extraordinary control by the instrumentalists, and this performance was no less than stunning, as it was in the entire work.
After such a brilliant inaugural season, we will expect even greater things from the Kontras Quartet in the remainder of their tenure. Perhaps we will have six, seven, and even eight players on the stage.