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With all the competing arts organizations in this area it is often cost effective to grab onto an artist or ensemble while they are in the neighborhood. The drawback to this is that quite often you are trying to attract the same audience to two separate performances that usually have the same program. Fans of the highest level of string quartet playing had a rare opportunity last weekend to hear two entirely different programs in less than 24 hours performed by the Tokyo String Quartet. This group has become the anchor of the Duke-based Chamber Arts Society's schedule, usually appearing in January, and their booking alone seems to help insure a large number of season subscription purchases. After spending the evening of January 25 at Duke's Reynolds Auditorium, the quartet headed east to Raleigh to spend the following afternoon as guests of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater.
The Tokyo Quartet has gone through many personnel changes since its founding in 1969; violist Kazuhide Isomura is the sole remaining member from that original lineup. Last May, Martin Beaver took over from Mikhail Kopelman the awesome responsibility of becoming "first among equals" as the first violinist of one of the most celebrated string quartets in history. A founding member of the Toronto String Quartet, this 34-year-old is now the second Canadian to occupy that esteemed chair, following Peter Oundjian (1981 to 1995). One can only imagine the pressure placed on someone in that situation. At least for the first year or so, most of the spotlight will be on the new kid and how, why, and if he changes their sound - and in which direction.
It was a completely sold out audience at Duke and people were actually being turned away. (I suspect the same thing will happen in March when the Emerson Quartet performs next on the series.) When the quartet came out some audience members were taken aback by the youthful appearance of the new leader. All concerns were quickly dispelled. The opening work was the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5, by Haydn, one of six quartets that make up Haydn's Opus 20 and display the mature Haydn in structural, harmonic and polyphonic complexity that is a far cry from the "charming" parlor-type early works. The first thing that struck you was just the sheer beauty and depth of the sound of the instruments. Well, no wonder! They were playing a set of Stradivarius instruments known as "The Paganini Quartet," on loan to the Tokyo Quartet since 1995 by the Nippon Music Foundation. But even a set of $10 million instruments is just pieces of wood unless consummate artists are playing and blending them. Every member of the quartet displays one of the traits that separate great artists from run-of-the-mill good ones - effortless virtuosity where technique serves the music but is not on display. Beaver showed a wonderfully warm and full sound with impeccable intonation and also a quiet but evident leadership. The highlight of the Haydn was the fugal final movement. Starting softly with the second violin, the Handelesque theme was passed around to every instrument, building in volume and intensity until the final measures, when it returned to a more classical, emphatic ending.
The second work was String Quartet No. 2, "In Memory," by Joan Tower, commissioned by the Tokyo Quartet in 2001. Originally written in memory of a friend of the composer, it also became a remembrance of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The work tends to divide the ensemble into violins vs. cello and viola and contains moments of extreme anger and tension juxtaposed with serene repose. It is in one movement, and the players expressed the sentiments in such a clear manner that the listeners felt as if they had been physically assaulted and then comforted.
String Quartet in E minor, "From My Life," by Bedrich Smetana is the chamber music partner to his more famous orchestral tone poem cycle Ma Vlast ( My Country ). Written at a time when, like Beethoven, he had grown almost completely deaf, this work is an epic journey through both his own life and the lives of the Czech and Bohemian cultures. The piece begins with the viola playing a Beethoven-like "fate" motif that becomes the centerpiece of the opening movement. Folk melodies and rhythms fill this work; the second movement is especially memorable as polka themes are transfigured in ways that Frankie (or even "Weird Al") Yankovic could never imagine.
After four curtain calls the foursome returned for an encore and launched into a brilliant reading of the second movement of Debussy's String Quartet.
Any fear that Super Bowl Sunday would limit attendance at Sunday afternoon's concert proved to be misplaced. Another packed house greeted the Tokyo Quartet as they walked onto the stage at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater. Early listings had the quartet opening the program with Franz Schubert's "Rosamunde" Quartet. This was replaced by Schubert's Quartet in E-flat Major, D.87, the last of a set of six written when he was sixteen. Tragically, his life was more than half over already! Despite this being an "early" work, it displays all the charm and achingly beautiful, but bewildering simple, melodies that characterize Schubert's later works. It was played with such grace, tenderness and richness of sound that made one feel privileged to be among those selected to experience this ensemble.
String Quartet No. 1 by Leos Janacek is a wild ride through Eastern European folk rhythms and motifs, not unlike Smetana's but in a much more raw, earthy and peasant style. I found this to be the highlight of both concerts. It was a remarkable display of rhythmic energy and abandon along with a precision and facility that left you breathless.
The violin and cello sonatas, the piano trios, quartets and great F-minor quintet - these are some of Brahms' greatest works, and they are considered to be some of the finest chamber music ever written. However, unlike Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók, and others, his string quartets have never been considered among Brahms' best works. The fact that he agonized over this medium and is supposed to have destroyed a huge number of string quartets is evidence of his discomfort with this form. It's hard to pinpoint shortcomings or excesses, but the performance of the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2, did nothing to raise my opinion of the work. The playing itself was luminous and sensitive but the work seems to bury itself with an unrelenting excess of Romantic harmonies and orchestration that begs for some relief. Unlike the evening before and despite three curtain calls, there was no encore in Raleigh.
Any attempts at comparisons of Beaver with his predecessors in the Tokyo String Quartet would be futile and ultimately just plain foolish. This is a quartet for the ages, and some of us were lucky enough to hear the ensemble twice within less than 24 hours. Music doesn't get any better than this.