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The Western Piedmont Symphony opened its Chamber Classics season with the first of its “Battle of the Bows” concerts at P. E. Monroe Auditorium on the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University, featuring the Jasper Quartet. This is a series in which a different string quartet auditions at each concert for the position of Quartet in Residence for the orchestra, a three-year engagement.
The Jasper Quartet (J Freivogel and Sae Niwa, violins; Sam Quintal, viola; and Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello) was founded in 2006 as Quartet in Residence at Rice University. They are currently the Graduate String Quartet in Residence at Yale University, and have performed at many prestigious festivals throughout the United States.
The program opened with String Quartet in G, Op. 76, No. 1 by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). This is the first of a set of six quartets completed in 1797 and dedicated to the Austrian Count Joseph Erdody. It is a delightful work, full of Haydn’s humor, with unexpected loud bursts in the midst of quiet, a lively minuet, and sudden starts and stops and false endings. The Jaspers played with sparkling vitality and great verve, imparting all of Haydn’s lust for fun to the audience.
String Quartet “Ainsi la nuit” ("Thus the night") by Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916) followed. This is a difficult work, both for performer and listener. Dutilleux’s music extends the work of earlier French composers like Debussy and Ravel. Dutilleux’s trademarks include very refined textures, complex rhythms, and a preference for atonality and modality. His sole string quartet, composed in 1976, consists of seven sections, each recalling something from the night. Each movement highlights various special effects, such as pizzicato, glissandi, harmonics, extreme registers, and contrasting dynamics. The result is a fascinating work, and this performance demonstrated that the Jasper Quartet is capable of performing an extraordinarily difficult work and giving it a sense of unity and purpose.
The concert concluded with a more traditional piece, String Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life") by Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884). Each of the four movements recalls some part of Smetana’s life: the first, his young ideals of art and music; the second, his joyful youth; third, the happiness of his first love; and finally, the discovery that he could use national, i.e. Czech, elements in music. In these aims, Smetana more than succeeded.
The first movement opens with a sumptuous viola solo, played stunningly be Sam Quintal. The other quartet members played no less spectacularly, all with great precision, passion, and cohesion.
I had some concern that the vast space of the P. E. Monroe auditorium would swallow the sound of a string quartet, but the new shell for the stage prevented the sound from being lost in the rafters, and projected it into the audience. I look forward to hearing the full Western Piedmont Symphony play in this renovated hall. The remainder of the Chamber Classics season returns to the newly-renovated auditorium of the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Council, again, an exciting prospect.
The Jasper String Quartet has, indeed, set the bar high for the other quartets that follow. They are polished, engaged, and in tune with one another. Their technical skills are of the highest caliber, and their musicality is without flaw. I look forward to hearing more from them.