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Grit and Gracefulness from Muir


Muir String Quartet (file photo)
Muir String Quartet (file photo)

On Monday night’s concert by Boston University’s quartet-in-residence, the Muir Quartet, the audience was treated to works by Wolf, Janacek and Dvorak. Comprised of violinists Peter Zazofsky and Lucia Lin, violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Michael Reynolds, the Muir formed in 1979 when the group were recent Curtis graduates, and has been an ensemble-in-residence at BU since 1983. With three decades of experience playing together, numerous awards to their credit including a Grammy, and an educational lineage that includes the Guarneri and Budapest quartets, the audience at the Tsai center largely knew they were in for a performance beyond mere virtuosity, and Muir did not disappoint.

Although some extremely minor things did; they are so minor it seems fitting to mention them at once before exploring the concert, which was on the whole fantastic. First, I join the long line of Boston concertgoers in questioning the Tsai Center’s suitability, both in terms of architecture and acoustic, for a chamber concert. As a hybrid space which tries to be all things to all people (or all events), Tsai’s wide, flat, lecture-hall layout somehow manages to make an audience member feel a lack of intimacy and also as if they are crashing the private party on stage. While the acoustic might be well suited for dramatic shows or orchestra performances, any group under 10 or so people is constantly fighting the room; given that this was a Monday night concert and Tsai was about a third full, perhaps a more suitable space could have been found.

That was not the quartet’s fault though, and neither is the second complaint: the program contained a bio of the ensemble, but no notes on the program. Especially on a concert with slightly nonstandard repertoire, a little blurb could help the audience identify with the pieces. Again, probably out of the group’s control. What was under the group’s control was delightful.

Wolf’s Italian Serenade occupies a strange and significant place in the repertoire—it seems there are many pieces that are considered “standard” although in reality they are still rarely heard. In this case, it is probably due to fact that the sheer virtuosity required to prepare the work is often not thought worth its seven-minute duration. But the Muir Quartet caught all its joyous effervescence and sly harmonies, slipping in and out of moments of effortless exuberance and rigorous muscle. The whole work, so its musical content was a bit understated, but perhaps that was intentional. The Muir’s color palate is orders of magnitude beyond other ensembles, and when they want to pull out all the stops they can.

And they did, in Janacek’s fiendishly difficult second quartet, Intimate Letters. Written as a musical expression of the over 700 love letters the composer exchanged with Kamila Stösslová, who not only was married but also nearly four decades his junior. The piece understandably takes on an improvisational and highly programmatic character, filled with genuine manifestations of manic emotional highs and lows. The viola, which was to symbolize Kamila, plays a prominent role in the work, and Mr. Ansell poured meaning and strength into each moment of its journey.

The first movement was nearly overwhelming. A few intonation issues at the culmination could be forgiven for the overall emotional heft of the music. In the second movement, the quartet sounded like a miniature orchestra, with clear and delicate textures. In the third movement, a Dance of the Solitary, one became acutely aware of the words and sentences these musical notes represented, and the final danse macabre switched through all the manic moods of the work, including a moment where Janacek twice ‘scribbles out’ a passage he is not pleased with, only to return to the opening musical material.

After intermission, the quartet played Dvorak’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 61. It was a bit like going to a five course meal, enjoying the first two and then instead of a palate pleaser having a banana split sundae—a Beethoven quartet would have rounded out the concert better; or a Shostakovich; or even a Schubert work. The Dvorak, while handsomely played, was not joining the Wolf and Janacek at the grownup table.

The group though had their virtuosity on full display, and it came off beautifully. The first movement was typical Dvorak—somewhat pastoral, always dancing, and often ending numerous times before it actually does. The interweaving lines of the slow movement were akin to the scherzo, where the rigorous dance was infused with a sweet song, and the trio’s song was infused with a dance. In the finale, whole worlds of sound were opened up and put on display, which perhaps resulted in the piece earning its place on the program.

As my wife, a string quartet member herself, mentioned to me, “people just aren’t taught to play like that anymore”, meaning that the old school lineage of the Muir’s teachers and forebears granted them a style of approaching music and a certain physicality which does wonders for chamber music (from an age when all chamber musicians were right below international soloists), but would prematurely end the career of the modern ‘gigging’ musician. The Muir Quartet of course possesses the facility to conjure up these musical forces when needed and use other methods at other times, but the result is a seemingly infinite color palate, a true sense of grit and weight, coupled with a floating gracefulness that allows each work to contain a universe of sound.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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