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In the 1930's, the Budapest String Quartet was the only professional string quartet based in North America that spent full time together. Reminiscing about his time as second fiddle in that fine quartet, Alexander Schneider once told me that only in New York and Los Angeles were they able to program three complete string quartets. The chamber music repertoire was so unfamiliar to audiences in other American cities that the impresarios (who could buy the quartet for $400 a concert in 1936) asked them to program a potpourri of "favorite movements" from familiar composers.
Times have changed. We are blessed now with a Golden Age of Chamber Music. The number and quality of full-time professional string quartets has never been greater. Many quartets stay together by taking positions at conservatories where they coach string-playing students in collaborative performance practice. Taking such a position, the four musicians are able to spend time together, so important in developing the close understanding that leads to great chamber music. The Amernet String Quartet is such an ensemble. Comprised of Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl, violins; Michael Klotz, viola and Jason Calloway, cello, the quartet is the "Ensemble in Residence" at Florida International University. They gave a single concert at the Brevard Music Festival Monday evening that left the audience wanting to hear more and hoping they return next year.
The program consisted of three works, the conventional pattern that the Budapest String Quartet couldn't do eighty years ago. It began with Franz Joseph Haydn's String Quartet, Op. 74, No. 3, in which Vitenson delivered a sweet tone in the short first movement and after workmanlike middle movements, the quartet distinguished itself with up-tempo contrasts in the fourth movement. This was clearly an ensemble that can read each other's minds.
The Amernet has made a special goal of preserving the music of European Jewish composers who died in the Holocaust and of the diaspora who scattered in the 1930's. Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) is a Czech-German composer who died in the camps. In comments from the stage, Calloway called the composer "omnivorous" because Schulhoff not only sampled but also digested a variety of influences. Stravinsky's Neoclassicism interested him. He experimented with American jazz idioms, as Ravel had. He adopted Arnold Schoenberg's modern Romanticism but only sparingly his atonality although Alban Berg was a close friend. Perhaps most importantly, Schulhoff used folk tunes of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, following the example of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály in Hungary and Romania.
Schulhoff's String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1924, early in his mature career, and is his most-performed work. It begins with a Presto con fuoco that delivers a lot of notes in a very short time. The second movement is marked Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca, and that "grotesque melancholy" is achieved through explosions of sound, and rapid-fire combinations of sul ponticello, sul tasto and pizzicato in the four instruments. I found a hint of klezmer music as well as the promised Slovakian folk influences in the third movement Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca. These three movements flew by in less than ten minutes. The composition then relaxed its pace with a six-minute Andante molto sostenuto that allowed the listener to reflect on how all these influences come together in the twentieth century. The fourth movement ends with a gradual fading pianissimo above a heartbeat from the cello. Then the cello's heart skips beats, and finally there is silence. Brilliant silence. The Amernet Quartet has absorbed and mastered this piece, and this performance was enthusiastically received by an audience to whom it was probably unfamiliar but who now embraced its sensibility.
After intermission, the concert continued with the String Quartet No. 13 in G, Op. 106 of Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). This popular work was written shortly after Dvořák returned to Europe in 1895 after his extended stay in America. It is symphonic in breadth, thirty-five minutes in length and uses shifting alliances of the four string instruments in combinations and contrasts, especially in the glorious Adagio ma non troppo second movement. In the dance-like fourth movement, I sensed speech patterns and was reminded of the operatic style of Leoš Janáček. Was it something in the air in twentieth-century Czech musical society? Music whose rhythms were patterned after the dialects of Eastern Europe?
After numerous calls back to the stage, the Amernet offered an encore. "Would you like to hear more of Schulhoff?" we were asked. Then came one of Schulhoff's 1923 Five Pieces for String Quartet which Olin Downes praised, after hearing a performance in Salzburg. Downes had observed that it was insufficiently appreciated that pieces that attempted only to charm or entertain were of value as well as pieces with serious pretensions. And charm the audience this Schulhoff piece did.
Every string-playing student at the Brevard Music Center this summer seemed to be in attendance, but the audience at the Porter Center was otherwise somewhat thin. Perhaps this was due to "concert fatigue" after a busy weekend in the Festival – two performances of The Marriage of Figaro and three orchestral concerts in four days – but those who elected to skip this evening missed a fine experience.