When Joe Vandewart and ten other visionaries created the Asheville Chamber Music Series in 1952, I doubt even they would have foreseen the impact it would have on the cultural life of this city. In its 60th year and going strong, the series continues to enrich concertgoers and students of string music in the Asheville and Buncombe County Schools. The Jupiter String Quartet, a Boston-based ensemble which was formed in 2001, attracted a near-capacity audience to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville.
There is a web of family connections within the group. Violinist Megan Freivogel is married to cellist Daniel McDonough and is sister to violist Liz Freivogel. While not related to anyone else in the ensemble, first violinist Nelson Lee also comes from a family of musicians. It was while he, Daniel and Meg were at the Cleveland Institute of Music that the nucleus of the group was formed, to be completed by Liz, who was then at Oberlin College. The quartet models itself on the work of the original Cleveland Quartet and the current Takacs Quartet. They perform internationally and to critical acclaim.
The program began with a joke, Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat, Op, 33, No. 2 (1781), so-named ”The Joke” for its humorous last movement which tricks one into thinking the movement has ended when it has not. While Haydn was moving in this set of quartets toward a more egalitarian distribution of musical “duties” among the four instruments, he still awarded the first violin in this case the most ornate part. In this performance I felt this voice to be too muted, understated and dark — at times, even buried within the other parts. That being said, the ensemble captured the energetic exchanges within Haydn’s first movement without sacrificing its elegance and grace. The second movement Scherzo: Allegro was played with folksy charm, especially its simple Trio. The third movement Largo began with two stunning duets, first in the viola and cello, then the two violins, and was capped by its quiet, almost still ending measures. The final Presto was played at a brisk clip, it’s funny ending slowed enough for us to hear the increasing spans of silence Haydn worked into the score perhaps encouraging people to begin talking before the piece was actually over.
Alban Berg’s Quartet, Op. 3 was the show stopper before intermission. Composed in 1910 and dedicated to the composer’s wife, Helene Nahowski, the piece bears the stylistic influence of Berg’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg. Berg consolidated romantic melodic tendencies with twelve-tone procedures resulting in this two-movement wonder, some of the most unique music of the twentieth century. New musical sonorities were created with the piling on of tone on tone as much as any linear workings of counterpoint. One gets so recalibrated to hearing dissonance that the work’s rare unison passages sound a bit shocking. Even more intriguing is Berg’s unusual color palette which is achieved in part via the unconventional playing techniques of playing close to the bridge (sul ponticello) or with the wood of the bow (col legno). The work’s vast and ever-changing moods were delivered spot on by this accomplished quartet.
Schubert’s vast Quartet in G, D. 887, the sole piece after intermission, was composed during a period of only ten days in 1826. While Schubert’s quartets are very different from, say, the late quartets of Beethoven, they vie with his in terms of length and emotional intensity. One writer has pointed to the polarity of their “restless angst and lyrical sublimity,” something which is further played out in major/minor modal ambiguity. This is exciting music full of drama, great tension, sharply etched melodic gestures, and surprising harmonic twists. With the first movement lasting nearly twenty minutes, there is a tumult of overlapping thematic declarations, development of same which occurs throughout the movement and not politely confined to a development section, and surprising outbursts of intensity which also surprisingly melt away into nothing. The second movement, Andante un poco moto, was both serenely beautiful and laced with an impassioned motive of dark tremolos ending in a high, two-note stab. The third movement Scherzo, though largely “elfin” a la Mendelsohn, was also not without its darkly digging tremolos, though these were absent in the sweet ländler-like Trio. The final sonata-rondo was the mighty gallop to the finish of this emotional whopper. The Jupiter Quartet navigated this sometimes craggy, sometimes serene musical landscape with sophistication and unflagging energy. One could feel the temperature literally going up in the room, and I’m sure they were largely responsible.