in: Reviews

June 28, 2009

Solid Performance from Jupiter String Quartet at Rockport Chamber Music Festival

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Performing in front of a sold-out audience, the Jupiter String Quartet gave a solid performance of works by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn last Thursday evening, June 25. at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Jonathan Vinocour, the newly named principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony, played in lieu of violist Liz Freivogel, collaborating with regular Quartet members violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough. The Quartet opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (1806), followed by Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Major, Op. 108 (1960). With the addition of violist Mary Persin, the Quartet concluded this evening’s concert with Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 87 (1851).

Dedicated to Beethoven’s patron Count Rasumovsky, this quartet represents Beethoven’s foresight into the future of music with his stretching of the 19th-century boundaries of harmony and structure. In the program notes, Sandra Hyslop explains Beethoven’s awareness of the difficult nature of this composition: When “Italian musician Felix Radicati asked the composer if he seriously considered these quartets to be music, Beethoven quickly replied, ‘Oh they are not for you, but for a later age.'” Though composed in the standard four-movement structure, this piece is full of dissonance with a strong rhythmic profile, refusing to let the audience settle into their seats, instead taking them on an exciting aural adventure.

Lacking really crisp articulation (especially in their unison attacks and phrase endings) at the beginning of this challenging Beethoven piece, the quartet really settled into the composition midway through the Allegro first movement.  Throughout this piece, first violinist Lee emerged as a strong leader of the ensemble, successfully keeping the group together with both physical and musical cues. He exhibited great control over his flying fingers as he calmly played through the quick trills and runs of the first movement, sweetly lingering on the highest notes of the violin in the second movement, and making the most of his solos with beautifully phrased melodies throughout the piece. Lee also paid incredibly close attention to musical detail, as in his affective playing an instant of vibrato at the top of his arpeggio accompaniment towards the end of the second movement. The other standout was cellist McDonough, often providing steady support throughout the chaotic moments of the piece, in addition to contributing expressive lyrical melodies when given the opportunity. The quartet made up for their slightly shaky beginning with their performance of the last two movements, strongly building up to the conclusion of the piece and ending triumphantly in unison on the tonic chord.

The Shostakovich String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Major, Op. 108, dedicated to the memory of the composer’s first wife Nina, is composed of three movements directed to be played continuously throughout. Once again, McDonough grounded the ensemble with his solid rhythmic foundation, further enhanced by the warm tone of his playing. The highlight of this performance was the detailed and often difficult interplay between the musicians, such as the four-part musical conversation in the second movement, where each instrument contributes a repetitive fragment in turn. The individual skill of the ensemble members was again featured in the third movement where, after a section of imitative counterpoint, each instrument veers away from the group and plays their own quickly moving and obviously challenging line. All of a sudden the ensemble ends this chaotic section, switching from contributing their own musical lines to assertively playing together as an ensemble. The Jupiter String Quartet approached this Shostakovich aggressively, effectively illustrating the various moods and emotions Shostakovich embedded into this composition.

The Jupiter sounded at its best all evening in a beautiful performance of the Mendelssohn String Quintet, with violist Mary Persin, to conclude the concert. This piece opened with the ensemble providing strong accompaniment for first violinist Lee as he set the mood for the rest of the piece in the Allegro vivace first movement with his expressive melodies and impressive runs. The ensemble contributed to this melancholy atmosphere with its luscious swells of sound, effectively using the crescendo and decrescendo to their fullest emotive potential. Each instrument both gave and received musical support throughout this performance, culminating in a beautifully balanced ensemble sound. Though Lee and Vinocour worked well together at the start of the fourth movement (Allegro molto vivace), Lee was really the featured voice in this piece and rose to the musical challenge.

A well-thought out program, this concert provided the audience with three completely different takes on writing chamber music for string ensembles from three masterful composers. The Rockport Chamber Music Festival continues until July 2, with other performances taking place on June 27, 28, 30 and July 1.

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