Chamber Music Review



This One Was Special...

January 22, 2005 - Chapel Hill, NC:


This one was special. On Saturday, January 22, in UNC's Hill Hall, the Vega String Quartet performed with Thomas Otten before an audience somewhat reduced by icy roads and winter storm warnings. Every now and then a concert is just right, and the music fits the time and the need perfectly. This was such a concert for me. Having been up since before four a.m. and having had a very busy but not too stressful day, I was tired and approached this concert ambivalently, thinking I would rather be at home, just chillin'.

The Vega press release promo begins with this: "True to its name, the Vega String Quartet is one of the brightest stars among the new generation of chamber music ensembles. Their contemporary style, silken sound and driving excitement has attracted international attention for over a decade. The group's performances have moved and delighted audiences throughout the United States, Asia and Europe."

I experienced their sound as velvet, or even as a down comforter on a cold night (such as this one). The program opened with Mozart's sweetly melodic Quartet in D minor, K.421. From the opening phrase to the end, the Vega Quartet was all singing, with remarkable sonority, intimate ensemble, and integrally sound musicianship. Every note, every phrase was attention-holding and satisfying. Especially impressive was cellist Guang Wang. Whether bowed or plucked, the instrument asserted a marvelous ground that thickened the sauce just right. When melodies were passed among violinists Christine Sohn and Jessica Shuang Wu and violist Yinzi Kong, it was as though the ideal ingredients and complementary spices were being added in a perfect blend. Never taking a misstep or making an unmusical sound, it was a delight that took away my weariness. What better chillin' out could there be than this?

Though not as impressively performed, Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1 was no less a delight. Alternating between plucked string passages of almost brutal intensity and lyrical passages of yearning beauty, this quartet has become a standard in the repertoire of most string ensembles of repute. It always demands attentiveness and respect and provides the listener with aural challenges and pleasures a-plenty. The superb program notes prepared by Edmund Trafford added to the pleasure of each piece on the program.

After intermission, UNC faculty pianist Thomas Otten joined the Vega String Quartet for a performance of Schumann's Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44. Probably no other composer was as compartmentalized as Schumann, who concentrated his energies on one form of music at a time. His earliest creative impulses were translated into piano music, and then 1840 was a miraculous year of songs during which he wrote over 100 Lieder and married Clara Wieck. In 1841, he wrote two of his four symphonies. The year 1842 was devoted to the study and composition of chamber music, the zenith of which was the Op. 44 Piano Quintet, now one of his best known and most admired works. This is pure music with no program, no romantic story; it is just music, exuberant, full voiced, and beautifully conceived by the composer, and it was beautifully executed on this occasion by the artists on the stage.

The tempos were brisk and at times Otten's hands were a blur across the keyboard. My companion said he was "all over the piano." The strings matched the workout and barely had a chance to relax their posture even for a few seconds. At the triumphant conclusion, they were all out of breath, with beads of perspiration on their foreheads. The audience burst into appreciative applause.

After stopping for a bite of supper and to re-enter, I went home satisfied, satiated and happy.