After 15-plus years playing together with a single change (second violin), the Parker Quartet may have taken a turn. At least to judge from their Paine Hall concert Sunday afternoon, the multi-awarded group, whose laudatory reviews almost invariably mention shine and polish, has decided to move in a direction toward the loud, the large, and the brilliant. Whether you like this kind of thing depends, as the hoary explanation goes, on whether it’s the kind of thing you like. (There’s a reason non-American classical reviewers take shots at the frequently big, overprojected sound of so many American string quartets.)
Haydn Opus 71 No. 2 started us off, and it jarred. Daniel Chong some days must be the loudest chamber violinist on the planet. Like his colleagues—violinist Ying Xue, violist Jessica Bodner, and cellist Kee-Hyun Kim—he plays precisely most of the time, with mostly fine tone, mostly impeccable technique, and more. They all do; the Parker is an important quartet. For this excessively energetic outing, though, I had to wonder if they should not sometime take turns sitting out in the hall while the other three play, or maybe check playback of what they just did, or ask one of their many local teachers to weigh in. Chong doesn’t dominate sonically or interpretatively; he leads the others into the paths of glossiness.
If the Haydn’s opening Allegro (after an Adagio intro) was big, the second movement Cantabile sounded jumbly, sometimes unsweet, maybe otherwise lovely but still unsung. The foursome came together for the Menuetto, yet then in the Finale: Allegretto their rhythmic touch went uncrisp. The Parker’s online Haydn is not quite like this. But a quick check of, say, the Alban Berg Quartet doing the same pieces shows the missing warmth and fondness of phrasing. A quartet maven in attendance later wrote me that it was “straight-backed, brightly scrubbed, not delicate, too serious—especially about Haydn’s humor.” Pass-around wit did sound clearly, but lacked sly wittiness, or didn’t dramatize it, and Haydn’s jollity became, in Parker hands, quite oversized. Having noted this, I must add that there are other responses to the scale of bite and attack and gesture of the phrasing. An audio friend I see chiefly at Parker concerts, asked at halftime whether he was liking the afternoon’s American pow of projection, said, “Oh, yes, the more the better”; and my musically discerning wife, overhearing my Parker comparisons with the Berg’s Old World Haydn, said, “Yes, but the Berg is kinda girly”. So, as to incisiveness and decibel level, your mileage may vary.
Tan Dun, if you do not know, is a prolific 59-year-old Chinese composer famous among much else for having scored Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2008 Olympics medal ceremonies. Eight Colors for String Quartet, a 30-year-old collection of cryptic miniatures, written after the composer arrived in New York, is pretty thoroughly modeled, to my ear, on the Second Vienna School (the composer denies), except for how that elliptical trio now resides in China and the snippets sound an octave higher. Some of the colors must all lie above middle C. One’s chief takeaway was many plucks with glissandos and crescendos, plucks over glissandos and crescendos, glissandos and crescendos over plucks, considerable droning in all registers. Plucks big and little. Some glissandos bloom slowly. “Drum and Gong” is so plucked as to be bowless. (These descriptions must sound naïve to hip string players. But I have my Kronos CDs and ancient Crumb reviews.) Duets get explosively commented on, or snidely answered, by the others. Dun’s brief notes refer to “my culture” three times, also to “Chinese colors”, to opera vocalization, also to remaining “open to myself”. The intervals and note sequences weren’t easy to track or apprehend, even on repeated hearing; check it out for yourself. The Parker manifestly enjoyed the accents and punctuation, the dramas, great contrasts, jokes, and more. One moment simulates a quiet helicopter buzzing overhead while the listener is quietly power-mowing the lawn. Busy ensemble work comes as curt relief. Eight Colors featured the widest dynamic of the afternoon, as the Parker on Sunday were not given to notable pianissimo anywhere.
More than usual, Dvořák’s third String Quintet represents his boisterous cornpone of Iroquois / Iowa farmer / Czech hokum. (Here’s a recent, less-exact Parker rendition.) Eagerness could not fully overcome a touch of straying pitch and thickened texture, and one was aware also of monochrome color (even as there are striking almost-bluesy notes) and undifferentiated levels. In a performance generally wanting Gemütlichkeit and sway, everyone remained eager, while Chong strongly steered. It was easy to imagine the piece being conceived only a couple of decades before The Music Man. The news, and boy was it arresting on this day, came from the warmth of the mature, settled, luxury-class viola of Kim Kashkashian. With her presence, the serenely felt Larghetto’s almost hymnlike theme and variations made one momentarily believe the whole concert had been like that.