Celebrity Series of Boston presented the Boston debut of the Símon Bolívar String Quartet in Longy’s Pickman Hall last night. The enthusiastically anticipated and intriguing program sold out early enough that an extra show became necessary.
Four young Venezuelan men make up the quartet: Alejandro Carreño and Boris Suárez, violins; Ismel Campos, viola; and Aimon Mata, cello. As the group’s biography states, “Created from within the Fundación Musical Símon Bolívar, the Símon Bolívar String Quartet is composed of principal musicians of the Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. This ensemble arose from the need of its members to explore chamber music, and to share the wealth of resources it can offer, not only among themselves, but also with the young people who make up the Fundacíon led by José Antonio Abreu,” founder of El Sistema. This creation tale reminds us emphatically that classical music is actually thriving, and puts the lie to the latest tolling of the death knell for the moribund, desiccated corpse of classical music. How, precisely, this genre came to be associated with the wicked witch is an open question. Meanwhile journalists, publishers, and newspaper vendors dance and sing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.” This group is proof that singing does not necessarily make that tale true. But I digress.
Among the three offerings: Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13; Alberto Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 20; and Brahms’s String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1, the Ginastera is quite rarely performed here, though it is on this group’s 2013 debut CD [samples here].
The quartet gave a lush, late Romantic reading of the Mendelssohn, replete with generous portamenti, a wide and full vibrato, and messa di voce dynamics. Yet the Símon Bolívar String Quartet also demonstrated Mendelssohn’s indebtedness to Beethoven in ways not often heard, while also looking forward to later musical developments. This was clear from the opening notes of the opening Adagio – Allegro vivace. The second movement, Adagio non lento, included a mournful fugue which built to the musical equivalent of an electrical storm, before calm reasserted itself in the chorale of the recapitulation. For the Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto–Allegro di molto, the musicians chose a stately tempo with rubato, and the opening took on the aspect of a gypsy air, before the tempo changed and the music became fleet, adept, with an arch character and a louche intrusion of the cello line. In the concluding Presto–Adagio non lento, the composition ended quietly, meditatively. This was not music of classicizing restraint, nor playful scherzos; this was a different approach to Mendelssohn, revealing a different character.
Ginastera’s quartet is technically challenging even as it draws on traditional song and dance in the service of a nationalist musical project. Here it is especially the malambo which gives the quartet its distinctive flavor; this sharp, rhythmic Argentine step dance from the Pampas dates back several centuries and was originally performed on guitar to accompany gauchos dancing, either singly or in competition. The Allegro violento ed agitato opens with a propulsive rhythmic drive and an impassioned melodic line of a sharply angular, a violent, beauty. The second movement is where the malambo is most evident, even as the rapidity of this music would defy any dancer; the lively Vivacissimo is an exercise in speed petering out into calm repose. The third movement continues this trend: Calmo e poetico is a series of vignettes filled with lyricism and yearning, recalling Korngold. The glissandi harmonics call to mind the Spectralist composers. Here was a very different character from the surrounding movements, arising out of sonic mists. The concluding Allegramente rustico cries out for choreography as the quartet dances to its close, rhythm and harmony finding common ground to bind these four movements together.
In Brahms’s op. 51, no. 1, the foursome captured the anxiety of composition as well as the tissues of allusion, as a young Brahms struggled to make a mark in an established genre. The opening Allegro especially showed the composer shuffling his way forward into this work. The Romanze: Poco Adagio was filled with tenderness and delicacy, while the Allegretto molto moderato e comodo was flowing, lyrical, and enjoyed its flirtation with folk music. The concluding Allegro joined anxiety with peace.
I remember reading an anecdote about Greenhouse in Prades studying with Casals. He left a lesson with bowings and fingerings to a Bach suite, and spent the next month working on it yet growing increasingly frustrated. When he finally spoke to Casals about the rigidity of imitating someone else’s take, Casals grunted, picked up his bow, and then played the same music using completely different bowings and fingerings. It was a moment of revelation: the same notes could yield such different music.
Revelations also abounded here, especially in how Mendelssohn sounded more Romantic than Brahms, and Brahms more hesitant, even more Classical, than we usually hear. Such upended expectations may account for the unhappiness I overheard from departing patrons. This reviewer found much to ponder in two familiar string quartets, and a wonderful opportunity to experience Ginastera’s music live—it deserves more hearings.
Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.