Why might one apply the term “World” to the Kontras String Quartet? After all, they are in the third year of their tenure with the Western Piedmont Symphony in Hickory, a fine town not all that far west of here. And these four young musicians provided top quality entertainment for the near-capacity audience in the charming old Smedes Parlor on the campus of Saint Mary’s School.
The cosmopolitan quality of this group is telegraphed promptly when one examines their origins. Violinist Dmitri Pogorelov showed early and impressive promise in his native Russia. Violinist François Henkins likewise distinguished himself at an early age in South Africa. Violist Ai Ishida, a native of Japan, studied in Tokyo and Illinois, winning the concerto competition. Only cellist Jean Hatmaker is “home grown.” This native of Illinois holds degrees from Indiana University where she studied with the world-renowned cellist Janos Starker.
The time spectrum began in 1781 with Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 2. Its secondary title “Joke” perhaps causes it to come across as especially light hearted. The viola did much of the heavy lifting, and indeed its duet with the cello in the Largo movement was “worth the price of admission.” The “joke” appeared at the end of the final Presto, but the first violin furnished a snicker all during that movement.
The most fascinating offering of the evening was likely the up-to-date number from composer Hajime Koumatsu, Four Japanese Folk Songs, No. 2 for String Quartet. “Yagibushi” was what a Japanese hoedown might sound like. The real charmer of the set was “Nambu Ushioi Uta,” helpfully explained by Ai Ishida as like unto a cowboy song. The instruments swapped plaintive melodies back and forth, carrying the listener right back home on the range. One song was entirely plucked by all instruments, producing a fusion of sounds, a few of them strangely unmusical to the uninitiated ear.
The second half of the program featured a tall member of the string quartet literature. Pogorelov pointed out the “ambiguous” message in Shostakovich’s String Quartet in E-flat, No. 9, Op. 117 (composed in 1964). Stalin was long gone by then, so the composer’s earlier fears must have been at least somewhat abated. One critic has held that any effort to categorize this Ninth Quartet “is a decidedly irrelevant pastime in the face of such wonderful music…” (Might not such philosophy well apply to compositions everywhere?) The intensity of its five movements was mellowed and calmed by the insertion of the two Adagios constituting numbers II and IV. From the subdued opening Moderato con moto all the way to the huge closing Allegro, these players seemed entirely undaunted by the demands of this massive work.
Many thanks go out to Henry and Tracey Smith for their support of the Smedes Parlor Concert Series. And do not forget the superlative artistry of these four young musicians. Thank them for bringing a wave of warmth to the first truly brisk evening of the early fall.