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Chamber Music Wilmington continued its 2018-19 series with the Jasper String Quartet. This is the ensemble's second appearance with CMW; they previously appeared just about two years ago. It was planned to be an even shorter interval, but Hurricane Florence caused their fall date to be postponed.
Beckwith Recital Hall, the acoustically ideal space on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, was almost full. It was clear from the start why this superb quartet was brought for a return appearance.
The program began with Haydn's Quartet in E-flat, Op. 64/6 (Hob.III:64). This is a compact, genial work, filled with good spirits. The opening was rich in tone. It felt lyrical and relaxed, slower than the allegro tempo marking, but it always expressively moved forward. It showed immediately the superb musical and tonal balance of the group.
The second movement carried a fine song-like quality, with melodious interplay among the parts. An upper-range solo for the first violin was almost theatrical in character. The ending shift to the low register was quite lovely. The third movement minuet was lively, almost seeming like an allegro rather than allegretto. Yet it retained a graceful quality and very clear lines. It evocatively had the lilting character of an 18th century ballroom dance.
The presto finale was fun. It featured a rhythmic figure – typical Haydn. One wondered at times if it wasn't too muscular. In the very rhythmic writing, the rapid inner parts were rather loud, so that the leading lines weren't as light and transparent as one might like. Here and there elsewhere in the concert, one would have appreciated a whispering ppp. That said, there was perfect synchrony in the dynamic changes with a wonderfully humorous ending.
The next work, Valencia, introduced the evening's featured guest, North Carolina's own Caroline Shaw, who is now based in New York. In 2013, Shaw received the Pulitzer Prize in music, the youngest musician ever awarded this honor. She has had commissions from the Calidore Quartet, the Baltimore Symphony, and many others. In addition to being a much-honored composer, this young musician is a professional violinist, violist, and singer.
Valencia is not about the place but about the pungent qualities of an orange bearing that name. It starts with a high repeating figure, then joined by lower range pizzicato. Later there are many swells. Opposition of sounds is characteristic of the piece, as is the juxtaposition of consonant and dissonant harmony. The tone is at first bright and energetic, evoking the tang of the orange and the spritz of squirting liquid. The piece slides easily between different ideas, with the high repeating figure as the link, then giving way to lower, fuller tone. This is in effect the B section. Rising to an energetic pizzicato, the opening character returns, quite varied from the first time. The ending of this short reprise and the piece is sudden and humorous. At a concise six minutes or less, the piece seems to be too quickly over. One would savor it for longer.
The first half concluded with another work of Shaw, In the Sweet By and By, which could not have been more different from the previous music. This is a pair of songs titled "Will There be any Stars in my Crown" and "I'll Fly Away." She described these songs in spoken remarks as bluegrass/gospel hymns and said also that they had great personal meaning for her; one felt this in the performance. The original lyrics are set to her own string quartet accompaniment, and Shaw herself was the singer. Her voice is attractive, almost entirely devoid of vibrato. She brought significant dynamic range, with intensity at the high points and gentle soft passages.
The first song was set entirely to pizzicato accompaniment, at times using open strings, at other times triads. Both contrasted to the largely pentatonic melody itself. "I'll Fly Away" also began with open strings, bridging the two songs. But this time the open pitches were bowed. In this song the intensity mounted in the refrain. The strings came together to surround the voice with a rich tone, like a halo of sound which one might imagine embracing the departed. Shaw sang with real passion here, and ended with the greatest gentleness and intimacy. The strings have the final expression, returning to open pitches, then skittering to inaudible high register notes, like a soul flying up to heaven. With this ending, and the impact of the mood, the audience hesitated to applaud. That is as much an honor as any cheers.
After intermission, the program concluded with the Quintet for Strings in G, Op. 111, by Brahms. Shaw joined the quartet on second viola. This rich work, by turns exuberant, lyrical, and dance-like, was given an exquisite performance which made the half hour or so length seem short. High points of the first movement were the lush viola tone in the 2nd theme; the perfect shift to the development and the evocation of vibrating sounds in the woods. The return was triumphal. The second movement had richly lyrical lines which seemed not to want to end. The third movement danced and evoked Schubert; the Vienna woods were a beloved spot for Brahms. The final movement held elements of Hungarian dance, something else Brahms loved, and which is invoked often enough in his music. One could cite a few moments of drawback; on occasion high pitches – and there are quite a few of them – didn't fully center; one wished for the pullback in the second movement to be still softer. Small matter. This performance was a feast of beautiful tone, rich expression, and continuity spanning the full length of a wonderful work. The audience responded with generous and amply deserved appreciation.
Note: The NC Symphony performs Shaw's new piano concerto in May. See our calendar for details. And for a review of a similar program from last fall, given in Raleigh, click here.