Chamber music concerts can be like hair: dull and lifeless or luxurious and vibrant. The latter was the case for the Western Piedmont Symphony's resident quartet, La Catrina, in this concert held at the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center Auditorium.
The programming was a stroke of brilliance, pitting one of Franz Joseph Haydn's (1732-1809) last quartets with one of Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770-1827) first. Sandwiched in between were wonderful 20th century examples of the genre by Astor Piazzolla (1921-92) and Joaquin Turina (1882-1949).
The program opened with Haydn's String Quartet in G Major, Op. 77/1. It was Haydn who defined the string quartet as it is now known, molding it from the divertimento or serenade structure which usually had five movements, into a standard four-movement form. His two Opus 77 quartets were composed in 1799 as a commission from Austrian Prince Karl Lobkowitz and were the last he was to complete. They represent the culmination of his masterful quartet style. The G Major Quartet requires virtuosic playing throughout, with concise coordination between the players, especially in the pauses, as Haydn was a master of dramatic silence. Here George Figueroa, who normally plays the second violin part, led the other quartet members — Daniel Vega-Albela, violin; Jorge Martinez, viola; and Alan Daowz, cello — in a clear, concise and masterfully-played performance.
Concluding the concert was Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18/1. Also written in 1799, it is his first numbered, but was probably written after his third quartet. In marked contrast to Haydn's G Major Quartet, this piece shows that Beethoven has already brought the string quartet form to a new level by using more complex harmonies and thematic development. The adagio second movement, noble, impassioned and of great beauty, ranks with the slow movements of his great piano sonatas and was played with deep feeling and pathos. The other three movements have much faster tempos, requiring great agility and energy. The entire work, and especially the adagio, was played with great ability and beauty, this time under the leadership of Mr. Vega-Albela.
Astor Piazzolla wrote "Four, for Tango" for the Kronos Quartet, an iconoclastic group which has expanded the range and context of the string quartet. Piazzolla, who was from Buenos Aires, has been recognized as one of tango's inspirational voices, having kept this dance form alive when it came close to decline. "Four, for Tango" is a sharp, grating work, with screeching glissandi, and a sensual overlying theme. La Catrina played here with great verve and passion.
"La Oracion del Torero" ("The Bullfighter's Prayer") by Joaquin Turina is a tone poem in one movement. Originally written as a lute quartet, it remains one of his most popular works, and reflects his Spanish nationalism. His work was influenced by other Spanish composers, as well as Ravel and Debussy. The flavor of the piece is thoroughly Spanish; the writing is thoroughly impressionistic. The mood is reverential as Turina's toreador tries to find inner peace, accompanied by the drama and tension of the bull ring, again very accurately and precisely portrayed by the La Catrina Quartet.
Again, the La Catrina Quartet has provided an exciting and unusual program, deftly and expertly played, and much enjoyed by the audience.