IN: Reviews

String Quartet on a Mission

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Formed in 2014 at the Zephyr International Chamber Music Festival in Courmayeur, Italy, the Thalea String Quartet is an eclectic young group playing an eclectic assortment of chamber works, with performances designed to appeal to young, first-time listeners as well as seasoned aficionados. Violinist Christopher Whitley described Sunday’s program at the Gardner Museum as “trans-Atlantic encounters,” addressing the ways that American composers blended European modes of expression with American modes — such as gospel and jazz — to transcend both.

Copland wrote his Movement for String Quartet in the early 1920’s while studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, but he abandoned it. Discovered by Vivian Perlis at the Library of Congress, it was performed for Copland by the Alexander String Quartet in 1983 and published with Copland’s blessing. The 6-minute movement, consisting of two outer slow sections and an agitated middle section, nicely started the journey with deep cello tones from Titilayo Ayangade, threatening and brooding. Luis Bellorín on viola added haunting autumnal color worthy of Mallarmé. The short middle section was given a convincingly manic, frenzied and anguished energy, with beautifully ugly slashes in the viola. Modulating into mournfulness, the movement concluded with Whitley’s violin in aria-like sorrow, evocative to me of Anselm Kiefer’s paintings of devastated fields with only stalks remaining.

William Grant Still’s Lyric Quartette: A Musical Portrait of Three Friends (1960) exists in multiple versions including string quartet, saxophone quartet, and for double-reeds. Violinist Kumiko Sakamoto found it “so much fun to play.” It presents three musical portraits in 15 minutes: The Sentimental One: On a Plantation, The Quiet One: In the Mountains of Peru (Inspired by an Inca melody) and The Jovial One: In a Pioneer Settlement. The foursome rendered all three eloquently, and with subtle nuances that brought to light a distinctive American experience, first of troubled nostalgia, then of solitude and scale, and finally of patchwork and diversity. The Thalea musicians bring very personalized styles to their joint playing, communicating intensely without ever fusing. They provided Still’s portraits with a secret individualism of their own, tinged with American complexity.

The notable African-American composer Florence Price is experiencing a well-deserved resurgence of popularity in recent years (viz. HERE). Her Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, introduced here by cellist Titilayo Ayangade, enjoys popularity with string quartets. Rae Linda Brown notes that “When the American folksongs not of African American origin,`Clementine’ and `Drink to me only with thine eyes’ were added, the word `Negro’ was erased on the manuscript, or nearly so. It is still legible in the title in quotation marks.”

Thalea gave us three of the songs: Shortnin’ Bread, Drink to me Only with Thine Eyes, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The distinct voice and coloristic emphasis of each musician helped to bring out Price’s beautiful counterpoint. Bellorín’s viola led “Shortnin’ Bread” with rhythmic grace, prompting Whitley’s violin to boogie irresistibly, despite Sakamoto’s nice dissonances, leading to a mysterious moment of brief mourning before a brisk, flashy cadence. “Drink to Me,” a brief theme and multiple short variations, featured beautiful ensemble playing, gentle, sweet and touched with sadness. The complex counterpoint of “Swing Low” was initiated by Ayangade with a grave cello solo, and masterfully articulated by the clear and distinct voices of the four instruments, each with its own unique timbre and color. A motoric rumbling near the end may have hinted at the alternate interpretation of the “Sweet Chariot” as the Underground Railroad bringing slaves to their freedom. 

The justly famous Astor Piazzolla has been both praised and criticized for his comprehensive overhaul of the Argentine tango. Bellorín spoke about Piazzolla’s short 1989 work Four, for Tango, recalling with palpable delight how the Thalea players had been mentored in San Francisco by the Kronos Quartet, Four’s dedicatee, and he attributed his attachment to the piece to its Latin rhythm; his parents came from Venezuela. He further explained some of the work’s special effects — sandpaper, whips, sirens, percussion — as Whitley gave a live demonstration of each. The foursome played with energy, ferocity and obvious pleasure, but also with a sort of pretend sarcasm occulting the deadly serious fascination with murder that lies at the heart of Piazzolla’s tangos.

We tend to forget how radically difficult, confusing and outrageous Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets felt to audiences and players alike in 1806.  “They are not for you, but for a later age,” he told the complaining performers. The second Razumovsky, Op. 59, No. 2, anchored the ensemble’s Gardner debut. A long-standing puzzle surrounds the Russian themes in this E minor quartet, as well as the Op. 59, No. 1 (and Beethoven’s invented Russian-sounding theme in Op. 59, No. 3). Did the Count ask Beethoven to include these themes? Was Beethoven insulting or ridiculing Rasumovsky by depicting the Thème russe in a crude way? Lewis Lockwood writes “I don’t know of any evidence except hearsay and rumor that Razumovsky asked Beethoven to use the famous national theme (or the one in Opus 59 No. 1) or that Beethoven had any idea of poking fun at him.”

Undoubtedly Thalea’s Beethoven will ripen and deepen in time, yet the ensemble already could achieve deep vulnerability in the adagio movement, even if the tempo was not molto adagio; the ensemble conveyed something of the sublime as well. The players did especially well in the scherzo movement, putting the off-beat rhythms into sharp relief, and giving it a distinctly modernist edge. They nicely avoided any implied derision with the four-square Thème russe, providing a maximum of contrast between the two sections. The finale went by with a nice nervous alertness, conveying the joyous feel of jamming—liberating and convivial, youthful and rich with hope.

Juventud, divino Tesoro! With its interesting short talks Thalea eases barriers between this wonderful music and younger listeners. The four young enthusiasts are inventing their own path. We old-timers may wonder about such extensive personal interactions at serious classical concerts, but it is refreshing to see an open horizon. OK boomer, let the millennials take over and may the Force be with them.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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