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Oh! We're having fun now. The Miami String Quartet showed up at Brevard College's Scott Concert Hall in the Porter Center for their second concert of the week and just tore the place up. This raucous multi-ethnic/gender string group is a reminder of what Spanky and all the rest became after they grew up. They went out and founded a string quartet and kept playing! The MSQ programs have become so exciting that The New York Times published the routine gibberish but then hit one characteristic dead-on: "unflagging energy."
These folks rock.
The concert began with Beethoven's Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No. 5. Written 1798-1800, this is an excellent reminder of how fresh the early works really were and how edgy Beethoven was. He was leaning on surprise and change of direction while still working the conventional four-movement format. The third movement, marked Andante Cantabile, is in fact a wonderful set of variations, and the Allegro fourth movement is a race to see how many times the motif can be handed off from one instrument to another. The MSQ played with a certain elasticity of meter that was fresh to the ear, and they are very good at making a note, or an entire chord, swell at its mid-point. Together, natch. You know. Real string stuff.
Next came the Quartet in F by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). It was written in 1902-3 while Ravel was studying under Fauré at the Conservatoire – a period after he had failed to earn the requisite exterior credentials to remain as an interior student. He simply hadn't won any composition prizes, which was one criterion for study. No matter. His skills were in full bloom in this lush four-movement sonic panorama. It's clearly French – Ugh! I get so much flak when I say things like this – okay, it consists of all those sounds we agree seem to sound French, yet is filled with what must have been innovative techniques for the time. For example, there is extensive use of pizzicato chords for standard vertical harmony and for rhythmic drive. At another point, there is a reedy long- tone chord that sounds like a pedal-pumped keyboard Harmonium in your grandmother's parlor, or perhaps very soft or muted crumhorns (if there can be such a thing). The MSQ have very good ears, and the musicians fine-tuned that sound quite successfully. I can't imagine how that section is notated....
Ivan Chan is the first-chair violin. He's just a little bit of a guy, but his space requirements for performance are on the large side. It's probably a reflection of his entire personae: the playing is superb, his physical gestures are grand, encompassing the whole body, during rests he often looks like a coiled snake at the ready, and it's hard to say if he really knows where he is. Cathy Meng Robinson occupies the second violin chair. She is the anchor for this mad group: her posture is confined to smaller movements, her eyes scan all the other players for critical moments, she harmonizes beautifully with whatever part is required, and her solo playing is tremendous. And frankly, I'm a sucker for a red dress - the tomato red full-length formal she wore was also tremendous.
Chauncey Patterson is the guy God sent down here to put a stop to all the viola jokes. Listen to this guy play and you'll form your own Viola Anti-Defamation League. Chauncey reminds me of John Popper, of Blues Traveler – a guy whose appearance seems a violation of the thing you hear later. He's a big guy, too. My hero. And then there's cellist Keith Robinson, spouse of Cathy. He's a guy with big sound and full technical skills who looks nothing at all like Florida Governor Jeb Bush..., but when he plays, there is this little facial thing he does, and then he really (well, sorta) looks like Jeb Bush.... Of course, if you're a Republican, then certainly this is the greatest cellist in the world. If you are a Democrat, well, you're really sorry about that mutant facial thing but hey, nice playing.
After intermission all hell broke loose- it was time for the Big Dog to eat. Pianist Douglas Weeks, from Converse College in South Carolina, joined the MSQ for a reading of the Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1, of Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960). These six people in the same room at the same time made big chemistry, and while the Porter Center is a big place, there were times it got crowded. At the end, nearly everyone was weeping or cheering – or both.
Dohnányi, a Hungarian pianist, composer, and teacher, is considered the most versatile musician to come from that culture, and along with Bartók he certainly framed the region's influence on 20th-century music. As a piano player, he is regarded as one of the greats of all time: witness as evidence performances of all the Beethoven piano sonatas in 1920 and all 27 Mozart piano concertos in 1941. He was known for having a comprehensive understanding of the music and for the size and grandeur of his repertoire. He joined the faculty at the Florida State University College of Music in 1949 as Composer in Residence.
The Piano Quintet was written in 1895, and even Brahms took notice and arranged for the premiere (yes, yes and I've already heard from the Brahms ADL). The composer was 18, and he wrote what is possibly one of the grandest, most coherent, and biggest symphonic-scale romantic pieces you can fit on to five instruments. Clearly, he was a prodigious talent. The work is four movements: Allegro, Scherzo: Allegro vivace, Adagio; quasi andante, and Finale: Allegro animato. We'll get to that "animato" in a minute.
This is a very well-crafted tonal work, reminiscent of Liszt, by a highly skilled musician; it has large musical gestures, long arc themes, and nicely balanced writing across all instruments. My notes may convey a measure of the performance: "...Weeks knows his business, ...understands the parts – his part – ...looking around for the next attack. Final chord of the first movement set off a 5th in the hall heard for nearly 20 seconds after the instruments stopped.... Canonic entrances, big articulation, a tremendous coda with surprise modulation.... A good composer takes a small idea and then just beats it to death...; a great composer shows us how it's really done! Heroic themes with just a few bars for the idea, now a fugue..., all very animated! By the time we figure out this fugue, they'll be down at Sardi's lying about it. Coda of last movement has a recap of main theme from the first. Huge! Entire audience gets it!" And so it went.... When this thing ended, the house – it was full – was on its feet right away, and the musicians were called back four times. In the Green Room, everyone was soaking wet and exhausted, but the line was, "Aw, shucks! We had a good time!"
When you watch these people play, you get the feeling they're four soloists about to fly apart at any moment. But when you close your eyes – and this is important – the visual distraction is gone and you hear wonderful, thoughtful, seamless ensemble with attention to the most minute detail that's nothing at all like the chaos it seems to be. Quite a stunning band.
Spanky! Dude! We never knew ya.