The New Zealand String Quartet is known for innovative and eclectic programming, and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild Masters Series concert at A J Fletcher Opera Theater on October 10, with two adventurous works sandwiched between two familiar standards, was no exception. The present crew of Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins, Gillian Ansell, viola, and Rolf Gjelsten, cello, has played together for ten years now, enough time for them to develop a fluent and relaxed ensemble. They take sensible tempos, let the music unfold naturally, and rely on technical skill and fine musicianship rather than showy virtuosity to communicate the music's message.
Their performance of Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 18/6, was warm and noble. The first movement sparkled with the kind of genial wit Beethoven was wont to employ in these "early" works. The slow movement, with its occasional hints of pathos, was played with real emotion but without any hint of sentimentality. The scherzo shows Beethoven experimenting with the contrast between triple and duple meters, and the performance artists grooved playfully with the results. The finale, the longest of the four movements, begins with a slow, melancholy introduction, after which a superficial-sounding scherzo finally appears. Here we witness one of the first examples of Beethoven's clear identification of music with specific spiritual and emotional states. The performance was solid, comfortably and winsomely played
Hungarian composer György Ligeti was just 21 when he completed his String Quartet No. 1, titled "Métamorphoses nocturnes," and he had yet to establish his international reputation as a bad boy of classical music. It is brash and audacious music - sort of the punk rock of the classical idiom. (Incidentally, Ligeti also composed the ethereal choral music - Lux Aeterna - you hear in much of 2001: A Space Odyssey .) The NZSQ was completely at home with this complex music, playing with such vigor that Doug Beilman snapped a string on his fiddle. After a brief pause for repairs, the piece continued with hardly a break in the mood. And Ligeti provided the musicians the opportunity to express an incredibly wide range of human emotions, from peaceful reflection to rage, from whimsy to tragedy, from yearning to acceptance. With the exceptionally fine program notes paving the way and an on-stage introduction by first violinist Pohl, this rather atonal work sounded like an old friend come to hang out and rap about life and philosophy for a while.
How does one transcribe the sounds of a Chinese Jew's harp, a Madagascar valiha, and a Bulgarian folk band into music for string quartet? Well, New Zealand composer Jack Body did it with some harmonic and bowing tricks, structured overtones, an occasional vocalization, various styles of foot stamping, and by employing a lot of plucked strings - at times the violins and viola were tucked in the crook of the arm and played like ukuleles. What emerged was a delightfully evocative set of three pieces played with gusto by the NZSQ. The work is accessible and easily won the audience's favor, judging by the sustained enthusiastic applause.
Like Beethoven, Smetana's creativity was deeply affected by awareness of his loss of hearing. His E minor Quartet, "From My Life," was his way of putting things in perspective and then moving on. This was not easy for Smetana, but the music flows with dancing charm and romantic effusion. He referenced the "fateful ringing in my ears... which announced the beginning of my deafness" in the fourth movement, with a piercing high e in the first violin over a quiet tremolo in the supporting strings. The moment gave me the impulse to raise my hands to my ears.
There was some superb playing here - from the sonorous cello melody in the Largo to some beautifully expressive phrasing in the final movement and the polka visualizing the young composer happily engaged in one of his favorite activities.
Smetana found this way to resolve, or at least to resign himself to "the catastrophe of my complete deafness." Like Beethoven, he went on to create some of his greatest music - the two string quartets and My Country , the set of tone poems that includes the widely popular "Moldau." Perhaps others felt as I did leaving this concert - that I had experienced something of the joy and challenge of life and that, whatever burden I had to pick up again on the way out of the theater, it was lighter and the future seemed brighter.