Once again, the Kontras Quartet dazzled a nearly full house at the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center for its third Chamber Classics concert presented by the Western Piedmont Symphony. As has become their tradition, the quartet members spoke about and demonstrated things about the music they were about to play, much to the delight of the audience.
The program opened with Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). The fugue was originally written as a two-piano duet, and later rewritten for string quartet, at which time the adagio was added. The underlying dark intensity of the work reflects the influence that Bach's music had on Mozart. The adagio uses some weird harmonies and the fugue employs several unusual contrapuntal devices, both uncommon in music of the time. The Kontras Quartet sorted all of this out, playing with great clarity and exuberance.
Next was a Peter Louis van Dijk's (born 1953) string quartet, "Iinyembezi." Van Dijk was born in the Netherlands, and migrated to South Africa, where he has had a career as a composer, conductor, performer, and teacher. "Iinyembezi" mean tears in the Xhosa language of South Africa, and its main theme is inspired by a song by the sixteenth century composer John Dowland called "Flow My Tears." Although the work is in one movement, it has three distinct sections, each featuring an element of sadness, from sighing to turbulence, to deep, distraught emotions. The music mixes African elements with the more traditional Western musical styles. The performance of this work was nothing short of amazing. The quartet had a full grasp of the nuances of the composition, and brought forth all of the emotions set forth in the "Flow of Tears."
The first half of the concert concluded with another work of pleading, "La Oración del Torero" ("The Bullfighter's Prayer)" by Joaquin Turina (1882-1949). Turina was born in Spain, lived for a short time in Paris, and returned to Spain to advance the cause of Spanish music. The flavor of this piece is thoroughly Spanish; the writing is impressionistic, reflecting his time in France. It was originally written for lute quartet, then rescored for string quartet, and ultimately string orchestra. The mood is reverential, as the toreador seeks to find inner peace, then interrupted by the tension and excitement of the bull ring, and finally closing quietly and gently. The Kontras Quartet allowed the emotion to pour forth gently but urgently, as befits a prayer of one in such a dangerous profession.
The last half of the concert consisted of Johannes Brahms' (1833-1897) String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1. Brahms was well aware that the ghost of Beethoven followed him everywhere, and for this reason, he was very cautious and self-critical of his compositions. He had already written and destroyed at least a dozen string quartets before he allowed this, his first, to be published and performed in public. Brahms' romantic ambition is apparent right from the start. The main theme, the broad strokes and the driving energy all combine to set the tone for the rest of the piece: a tone of frustration and longing. The depressed state is sustained through all four movements into the agitated finale. Even there, the music does not leave with a bang but rather with an exhausted fade-out. Again, the quartet performed with deep feeling and intense color of the composer's intent.
Although the entire program seems to have the theme of darkness, longing, or even sadness, the concert was brilliant and dazzling in its performance. The members of the quartet play seamlessly, passing their lines from one to the other as a leaf is carried by the breeze. What surprises and rewards will their next concert bring?