The Western Piedmont Symphony welcomed the Kontras Quartet, the winner of its “Battle of the Bows” and its fourth resident quartet, to the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Auditorium for its first Chamber Classics concert of the season. And what a welcome it was, with a very full house and a wildly enthusiastic audience.
The Kontras Quartet is unique in that its members – violinists Dmitri Pogorelov and Francois Henkins, violist Ai Ishida, and cellist Jean Hatmaker – hail from different continents: Russia, South Africa, Japan, and the United States, respectively. They met in Chicago, where each was a principal in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.
The quartet is committed to bringing chamber music to new audiences and audiences to new or unfamiliar chamber music, and this concert certainly filled the bill on both counts. The audience contained a large number of young people in addition to those of us who are “more mature,” and the program contained some infrequently heard works.
Opening the program was String Quartet in G, Op. 33, No. 5, by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). Haydn claimed that the Opus 33 quartets were composed in a special way, different from those that had come before. They contain, for the most part, a playfulness and charm not seen in earlier quartets. The first three movements are mainly a vehicle for the first violinist to show off their virtuosity, and Mr. Pogorelov was certainly up to the task. In the fourth movement, all of the instruments get to exercise their mettle, which they did quite ably.
Next came the first surprise of the evening with Alexander Glazunov’s (1865-1936) Five Novelettes for String Quartet, Op. 15. These seldom-heard works, composed when Glazunov was 21, were inspired predominantly by folk music. The first is in Spanish style; the second is supposed to be oriental. The third section is more solemn, reminiscent of music from the Russian Orthodox church. The fourth is a warm and humorous waltz, and the finale is evocative of Hungarian music. The music itself, which was played with enthusiasm and high spirits, would have been worth the price of admission, but to add to the experience the quartet collaborated with local photographers Sally Fanjoy and James Labrenz, who presented a wonderful multimedia backdrop of some of their photographs and moving images, adding to the force and delight of the music. We can look forward to more planned collaborations in the future.
The second half of the program consisted of String Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3, by Robert Schumann (1810-36). This is yet another quartet that is not often found on chamber music programs. It is an emotionally diverse work, with melancholy as its central theme, but there are moments of elevation and joy, especially in the scherzo and the finale, a spritely rondo. The quartet negotiated the intricacies of this very rich work deftly and with great intensity, bringing life and light to what could be a somber piece.
As an encore, the Kontras Quartet presented another surprise for the audience – Astor Piazzolla’s (1921-92) "Four for Tango," for string quartet. This short work abounds with strange musical effects, including multiple glissandi and rapping of the knuckles on the bodies of the instruments. In the middle of all this is a graceful tango melody. The Kontras played with grit, verve, and edginess, while letting the sensuality of the tango shine through – in all, five minutes of great fun.
If this concert is an omen of things to come, and I am sure that it is, we are in store for some great music over the next three years.