La Catrina Quartet is in its first year of residency with the Western Piedmont Symphony. The quartet, founded in 2001, has as its mission to work closely with living composers in order to promote the performance of new music, to promote Mexican and Latin-American art music, and to perform the masterworks of the string quartet repertoire. The quartet consists of Daniel Vega-Albela, violin, George Figueroa, violin, Jorge Martinez, viola, and Alan Daowz, cello. Its members have played as soloists with a variety of orchestras in Mexico and the United States, and have given recitals in Japan, England, the United States, and Mexico.
The first half of the program, devoted entirely to Mexican composers, opened with Cuarteto by Joaquin Gutierrez-Heras (b.1927). Heras is one of Mexico's foremost musical figures. He initially intended to be an architect, but changed course and became a composer. Caurteto is his first string quartet. It is in one movement, with several contrasting sections. The entire work is very textured, building layers of colors, one on top of another, starting slowly and quietly, switching to a rhythmic and fast fugato section, and ending in tranquility and stillness. The work has a very "contemporary" or "modern" sound to it, but is, nonetheless, quite pleasing.
Miguel Bernal Jiminez (1910-56), whose Cuarteto Virreinal was presented next, was born in Mexico and studied at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome. He is widely regarded as the best representative of 20th century Mexican religious music, in addition to his important contributions to the Mexican nationalist music movement. He is considered by some to be the mainstay of the nacionalismo sacro (sacred nationalism) movement.
The Cuarteto Virreinal is in the traditional four movements. The first and third movements are based on Mexican children's songs. The second movement, "Zarabanda con Variaciones" (or saraband - a stately court dance similar to a minuet - with variations) is very reminiscent of some of Handel's works. The last movement is a lively fugato, again based on a Mexican theme. This quartet is much less "modern" than its predecessor on the program.
Completing the first half of the program was Sonoralia, Op. 3, "La Zacatecana", by Emmanuel Arias y Luna (b.1936). This work is in two movements, both dances, and is great fun, especially the concluding "Jarabe", which is a popular clogging dance with a happy mood.
Each of these works was filled both with complex rhythms and sections requiring great precision on the part of the players as they jumped back and forth among their parts, and La Catrina Quartet accomplished this with a great deal of ease and, seemingly, did not miss a beat.
The second half of the program consisted of Edvard Grieg's (1843-1907) String Quartet in G minor, Opus 27. Grieg is renowned as a nationalist composer, drawing inspiration from Norwegian folk music. Early works include a symphony (which he later suppressed) and a piano sonata. His many short pieces for piano — often built on Norwegian folk tunes and dances — led some to call him the Chopin of the north. This quartet, the only one he completed, draws extensively from his country's folk music. Writing about this string quartet, Franz Liszt stated: "It has been a long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg." Grieg himself said that his aim was to soar and have great breadth and a vigorous sound for the instruments for which it was written. And soar he did, and soar they (La Catrina Quartet) did, achieving the great sonority and passion that Grieg had envisioned.
This was the first occasion that I have had to hear La Catrina Quartet in live concert, although I have listened to recordings of previous concerts. I have also never heard any of these works performed before, and I must say that I was not disappointed in either case. The quartet is well seasoned, and they play together well. I am quite impressed with their ensemble playing, which seems to be second nature to them. I look forward to more exciting performances.