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Chamber Music Review

Western Piedmont Symphony Presents Degas and Euclid Quartets

March 4, 2006 - Hickory, NC:

The Western Piedmont Symphony continued its Friends of the Quartet Chamber Classic Series with its third concert on Saturday, March 4, featuring the Euclid Quartet as guest artists. The performance was given in the Auditorium of the Arts and Science Center of Catawba Valley in Hickory.

The Euclid Quartet was founded in Ohio in 1998 by first violinist Jameson Cooper and second violinist Jacob Murphy, later joined by violist Luis Vargas and cellist Amy Joseph. Since 2004, they have been in residence at Morningside College in Sioux City, teaching and presenting their own local concert series as well as doing outreach concerts in Sioux City schools. The quartet has recently signed an agreement for the production of its first commercial CD, featuring the string quartets of Viennese-American composer Hugo Kauder; it should be available later this year.

The first half of the program was dedicated to quartets by Mozart and Beethoven, both performed by the Euclid Quartet. Prior to the concert, I had listened to sounds clips of some of their performances on their web site (http://www.euclidquartet.net/) and knew I was in for a treat. I was not disappointed – this is a class act.

The program opened with the String Quartet in B-flat, K.589 ("Prussian") by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). Apparently planning to write a set of six for King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, Mozart completed only three quartets, of which this is the second. They were clearly written for the king, an amateur cellist and patron of cellists, as the cello part in all three of these works is much more prominent than usual. The Euclid Quartet played the work with elegance and grace fit for a king, and cellist Amy Joseph fulfilled the royal role beautifully.

Composed in 1806, the String Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1750-1827), is the first of three commissioned by Count Andreas Kyrillovitch Rasumovsky, who had been Russian Ambassador in Vienna since 1790. In this work, Beethoven threw away the traditional classical string quartet mold and seemingly started anew. It was far different from the tonal world of Haydn and Mozart, and it moved the string quartet from the private house to the concert hall – from amateur to professional musicians. When this quartet was first heard, musicians of the day thought Beethoven insane, and the audiences were perplexed. Neither was the case in this performance. The performers were as professional as could be, and the audience was thrilled. The playing was precise and rhythmic; there was nary a missed note or beat, and the adagio movement was full of tension and pathos, an expression of deep grief.

In the second half of the program, the Degas Quartet joined forces with the Euclid Quartet to present the first-ever public performance of Armando Bayolo's "Ludi" Octet for Two String Quartets. Commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival and written for the Degas and Euclid quartets, the official world premiere will take place this summer at Aspen, in Colorado, but this was the real one.

Armando Bayolo (b.1973) was born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents, and holds degrees in composition from the Eastman School of Music, Yale University, and the University of Michigan. He has composed orchestral, chamber, vocal, and piano works that have been performed throughout North America and elsewhere.

The "Ludi" Octet is named after the Latin word for games or sports. In the words of the composer, who spoke to the audience before the piece was played, "it takes the idea of games, gamesmanship and especially public games or spectacles and seeks to provide musical variations on these ideas." The two quartets sit apart from each other on stage in order to act out musical games of perception, relationships, and games of chance.

The octet is divided into four movements, played without pause. "Mosh Pit" is the first, and it is sonically and visually what the name says. Harsh, frenetic, dissonant chords are tossed back and forth from one side to the other, almost to the point of violence. This segues into "Mating Ritual," with its give and take, as the title implies. "Endgame," the third section, is playful, with musicians playing games of chance. "Finally, these games are taken as a metaphor for human relationships, some healthier than others," according to Bayolo. It all works out in the end, and the final "Benediction: All Men Are Brothers" represents not so much a game as the hope that just and loving human relationships will rise above any and all games.

This movement is truly a benediction, a great and moving culmination to the piece. Over the drone of the two violas and two cellos sounding like a harmonium, the four violins play a recurring theme in a canon or round, fading away toward the end, when the composer throws in a few disquieting notes to remind us to watch out before finally closing peacefully.

In this concert, Amy Lovinger joined the Degas Quartet as second violin, substituting for Tamaki Higashi, who was away on a family emergency. Both quartets realized this technically demanding work with virtuosity and verve, and they played the games with great gusto and élan. It appeared that they made the composer proud.

Contemporary works do not often get standing ovations, but this was an exception. After the performance, even some of the audience members who came prepared not to like the piece said that they really enjoyed it. It is a work that deserves to be heard many more times, and in many more places. It is new, it is fresh, and it gets its message across.

Not often can one attend a concert and find no fault or make no complaint, but this was, in my opinion, certainly such an occasion.