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Chamber Music Wilmington offered its second concert of the 2021-22 subscription season with continuing excitement at the return of live concerts to the Port City. Performing was the Ulysses Quartet, a young group that has won several prestigious prizes and is currently the Graduate Resident String Quartet at the Juilliard School. The concert took place in the superb Beckwith Recital Hall at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, perhaps the best hall of its size in the region and ideally suited to performances such as this.
First on the program was "Reqs" (Dance) written by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. Born in 1947 in Baku, the ancient capital of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, she has lived in Germany for over twenty years. Artists of the stature of Hilary Hahn and the Kronos Quartet have performed her music. She mixes musical influences of her native country with those of 20th-century modernism.
This nine-minute piece, with its scrapes and slides and unusual scales, produced what Western ears might call exotic effects, along with rhythmic dynamism. The piece is by turns energetic and moody, often with an insistent bass. In its shifting and imaginative tones, it kept the listener engaged throughout. The quartet performed it attractively; one wished for more of the wildness which the piece seems to contain, especially in the coda.
The first half continued and ended with the String Quartet No. 2 ("Intimate Letters") by the remarkable Czech composer Leos Janáček (1854-1928). Written in the last year of his life, it was inspired by his relationship (details remaining unknown, but might well be inferred) with a married woman far younger than he. It is by turns anguished, turbulent, beautifully lyrical, and dance-like – often with the moods juxtaposed in close succession. As is typical of the composer, it requires a strong sense of continuity to create dramatic cohesion among the seemingly disparate parts.
There were any number of moments to appreciate and admire in this performance. Colin Brookes, viola, played the instrument personifying the object of the composer's love, Kamila. There was a strong hush at a solo he had in the first movement. An explosive moment in the third movement stood out. In the last movement there was good humor in the other three instruments accompanying the viola.
Overall, the wilder, tortured character of the piece needed to be built further, a particular place being the powerful ending of the work, arguably a stand-out passage in the entire quartet literature. The ensemble seemed to thrive more on the lyrical moments; beautiful as they are, it requires the extremes of expression for the piece to achieve full cohesion and dramatic reach.
The deeply-felt Clarinet Quintet in B minor by Brahms followed intermission and concluded the program. The quartet was joined by clarinetist Oskar Espina Ruiz, who is the artistic director of Chamber Music Wilmington; this was his first performance on the series. He has given many performances internationally and is a professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
Hearing him in this concert was worth the wait. His presence changed the role and character of the string quartet to one collaborating with a soloistic part which was sometimes the lead, at other times integrated masterfully into the texture. Ruiz played with sensitivity and rich tone, standing out with soaring long phrases, or weaving expressively into the surrounding string lines.
The first movement almost immediately showed the strong expressive character and tone of its clarinet soloist. First violinist Christina Bouey and second violinist Rhiannon Banerdt were well- matched, a quality which gave strength to the ensemble. Later the quartet had a lovely diminuendo to pianissimo to usher in the clarinet. At the start of the development, cellist Grace Ho had a luscious solo, one of several she gave in the piece.
In the second movement Adagio, the quartet beautifully undergirded the expressive clarinet with ultrasoft murmuring – a wonderful passage. A fine, gentle solo followed in the first violin. There were poignant soft moments in the clarinet, and another place where the first violin and clarinet had a lovely dialogue.
The equally lovely, gentle dance of the third movement had an especially light, fleet tone in the middle section from the entire ensemble, and equally fine rising lines at the end. These were moments to remember.
The darker last movement, with its elegaic ending, had a beautiful winding cello solo answered by the clarinet. There was turbulence in one variation, even a bit of whimsy in another, and then the ending returned to the opening of the work, world-weary, resigned, bringing the concert to a moving conclusion. (Despite his earlier intent to retire from composing, Brahms was nowhere near finished, and went on to write some of his greatest music.)
The clarinet quintet is not a crowd pleaser, but music for attentive listeners ready to enter the work's intimate expressive world. The audience reaction at the end was subdued, as it perhaps exactly should have been.