in: Reviews

July 15, 2012

Jupiter Quartet Superb in Rockport


The estimable Jupiter Quartet, noted before for its astounding virtuosity, cherishable collaborativeness and almost ferocious focus on projecting the music of the composers whose works it is playing gave one of its last performances as a Massachusetts-based ensemble last night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. With equal felicity and panache they played Bartók, Haydn and Mendelssohn and by evening’s end had the grateful and attentive audience on its feet.

There is one more chance to hear these remarkable players this season in Rockport: at the Chamber Music Festival’s closing concert this Monday evening, July 16th , when joined by the splendid pianist (and the Festival’s Artistic Director) David Deveau in an enticing program of Mozart, Ravel, and Dvorák. Though the concert is officially sold-out, tickets MAY still be available. If so, do go — it will be wonderful.

Before the Jupiters appeared on stage Saturday, Deveau announced with a tinge of regret that the Quartet would soon be moving its home base from Massachusetts to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, home of the flagship campus of the University of Illinois. What this means for Boston-area audiences is unclear, but it’s likely that chamber-music aficionados hereabouts will hear less of this ensemble in local concerts — a real loss.

When the musicians came on stage, one noted that the personnel seemed different from what was listed in the program book, and indeed it was. An earnest-looking bearded and bespectacled young man had replaced regular violist Liz Freivogel, who, we were told by cellist Daniel McDonough, had just given birth to her second baby. As he had the last time this happened, Jonathan Vinacour agreed to deputize. He is the first chair violist of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. We were soon to hear just how ideal a part-time member of this ensemble he is.

The concert began with Haydn — always a good choice as an opener — the Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 33, no. 2; HOB.III, 38, “Joke.” The excellent program notes by Sandra Hyslop told readers that the op. 33 quartets are unique among Haydn’s output of 68 string quartets -written over a span of 45 years — in that those of op. 33 are the only of his quartets that substitute a “Scherzo”-labeled movement for the usual Minuet. As for the “joke” aspect, there are many: in the trio of the aforementioned Scherzo movement Haydn pointedly asks the first violin to employ a slithering portamento, which the other members of the Jupiter echoed when appropriate. And as the rollicking and high-spirited fourth movement raced to its end, we heard unusual slowing downs, speeding ups and a number of “false” cadences. It has been thought that Haydn did this to “jab” at audience members too quick to applaud. Of course, in Haydn’s hands, this worked very well, occasioning laughter and a stray handclap or two before the movement’s actual close. All this was good fun, and the concert was off to a bracing start.

Béla Bartók’s dark, ruminative, and utterly compelling String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, op. 7 (1909) offered weighty contrast. This early yet fully mature work from the composer’s 28th year emerged from a stormy period in his life. He had fallen passionately for a 19-year-old violinist named Stefi Geyer, so much so that he began sketching a violin concerto that he would offer to her as a token of his love. Before the composer could complete the music, however, Miss Geyer rejected his advances, leaving Bartók broken-hearted and dejected. Yet, the composer was a resourceful man; he began “recycling” some of the music he had written for Geyer’s concerto, and some of it found its way into the A-minor String Quartet. This surely helps explain the music’s constant sense of yearning and burning intensity.

Though three movements are indicated, they are played as if continuous, and what a journey unfolds for the players and listeners! Indeed, the first eight or so minutes are of such intensity that one wondered if the composer — and the players — could sustain such an arch of emotion throughout. That all concerned could and did is a tribute to them all. McDonough’s keening opening high cello tessitura abetted by the relatively high-lying parts of the two violins and viola only made the cello’s eventual plunge into its lower range all the more impactful, as if one were witnessing an emotional tumble off a cliff’s edge. One was tempted to think that the cello might in fact embody Bartók’s teeming emotions in how that instrument so often independently led, impelling the musical line forward and providing rhythmic and harmonic solidity no matter what its peregrinations. But this was an ensemble effort, a “take no prisoners” commitment to projecting this dark and moving music on the part of all four players that ultimately remains in memory. For me, this searing performance was the highlight of the evening.

A third gem — the Quartet No. 3 in D Major, op. 44, no. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn followed intermission. Here an alternate form of energy emerged; lighter in emotion and sunnier in general feel. The Jupiters seized upon the good-naturedness of the music on the stands in front of them, and with ideal agreement on tempi and approach propelled the composer’s busy instrumental lines forward with irresistible vigor and zeal. There were occasional pauses in this for the second and third movements where a graceful and lilting dancelike conceit was asked for, and here also the Jupiters were a model of interactive collaboration. The fourth movement, marked “Presto con Brio,” was all that, with forward motion reminiscent of the whirling, swirling finales of the composer’s third and fourth symphonies. Smiles abounded on-stage and off, and at the end, a likely tired but obviously energized Jupiter String Quartet stood for its bows before its cheering throng of admirers.

This was a wonderful evening of involved and involving chamber music in Rockport. Kudos are due yet again to the Rockport Chamber Music Festival for bringing such welcome talent to their beautiful seaside venue at the granite-bound tip of Cape Ann.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 32 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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