On an overcast, cool summer morning, we gathered in the Theatre at Tanglewood (think: a wood-paneled shed). With the ominous and melodious rumination of viola and cello, Shostakovich Quartet No. 14 started off the program. This started the two-day quartet marathon that highlights Tanglewood Music Center Fellows, showcasing quartets formed at Tanglewood each season and coached by members of the teaching faculty.
On June 28 and 29 from 11 am to 1 pm and again from 3 pm to 5 pm, each of the fifteen ensembles (one, a contrabass choir, the remainder string quartets) performed movements from two quartets, one by Haydn and the other by a composer ranging from Beethoven and Brahms to Schoenberg and Bartók. In each ensemble, the violinists alternated performing first and second roles between works. Given this set-up, the marathon became an idiosyncratic history of the string quartet, with Haydn, the backbone of the repertoire, a constant refrain.
Many performances were excellent, which had the unfortunate, and unintended, consequence of leaving me wanting to hear some works in their entirety. Alas, that was not to be, else the marathon would become even more of an endurance test for performances and audience alike. Highlights of the June 28 edition of the Marathon included: Sunbeam Quartet (Natalie Kress and Kelsey Blumenthal, violins; Jocelin Pan, viola; Sarah Stone, cello) performing Beethoven, Quartet No . 15 in a, Op. 132 – I. Assai sostenuto – Allegro; Lotus Quartet (Wen-Tso Chen and David Andai, violins; Daniel Getz, viola; Caleb van der Swaagh, cello) performing Debussy, Quartet in g, Op. 10 – I. Animé et trés décidé; and the opening Shostakovich Quartet No. 14 in F sharp, Op. 142 – I. Allegretto & II. Adagio, performed by the Aston Martin Quartet (Amy Galluzzo and Florence Wang, violins; Danny Kim, viola; Oliver Aldort, cello). After hearing movements of seven Haydn quartets in short order, they do start to merge in memory; the Sunbeam Quartet’s reading of Haydn’s Sunrise Quartet No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 76 – I. Allegro con spirito, II. Adagio, & IV. Finale: Allegro ma non troppo stands out for the tight ensemble playing and the shared variety of tonal colors, belying the group’s recent formation and attenuated practice schedule.
All the musicians exhibited maturity and poise in their performances, communicating across stands and conveying a unified message to the audience. Roberto Papi, viola with the Daimler Quartet (performing movements from Dvorák’s Quartet No. 11 in C, Op. 61 and Haydn’s Quartet No. 6 in E-flat, Op. 64) is not alone in exhibiting such joy and pleasure and performing, his happiness emanating to the other members of his quartet and the house at large. I single out Mr. Papi because his delight was so palpable.
A trope among commentators on classical music is to bemoan the declining audience and dimming future prospects. Based on what I saw and heard today, performers of and audiences for classical music, specifically string quartets, are alive and well. I, at least, have full faith and confidence in the continuation of live classical music for many years to come as long as such talented players remain supported and nourished.