IN: Reviews

Quartet From Manhattan Via Boston

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Manhattan’s The New School, as part of its Schneider Concerts, presented the Balourdet Quartet (Angela Bae & Justin DeFilippis, violin; Benjamin Zannoni, viola; Russell Houston, cello) in a virtual concert of Beethoven, Montgomery, and Bartók. Taking their foursome’s name from a French chef the players met while performing at the Taos School of Music, they chose this name to honor him, his food, and their time together at this special place. While the Balourdet Quartet, founded in 2018, is now in the Professional String Quartet Program at New England Conservatory, the Manhattan presenters led me to expect a different location. When streaming, I recognized that familiar Boston landmark, Jordan Hall. Clearly done before a live audience (applause heard in the stream), this production gives a salient reminder to the rest of us of what we are missing during the pandemic. At the same time, this virtual format (as became clear in the post-concert conversation) enables us to transcend distance.

The concert showcased each musician introducing a work then the music, in a format now become so typical. The music commenced with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1801). As Angela Bae remarked, this marks the beginning of a composer’s journey that culminates in the magisterial late quartets. To hear this music only for signs of what is to come is a disservice though. While this example reveals more prominent traces of Haydn than the later works, already we hear a prevailing strength of contrast and a greater degree of seriousness than in most of his teacher’s copious works in this genre. The Allegro con brio opens in a more intimate and subdued vein before becoming more declamatory in the initial theme and throughout the more self-assured development and recap. Throughout there is a vibrancy and excitement of idea. As night follows day, the second movement, Adagio affettuoso et appassionato, begins with plaintive sadness; still intimate, but mournful and maintaining this mien even when becoming more intense, more piercing, more voluminous in its minor-keyed passion. The third movement, Scherzo: Allegro molto, opens less in playfulness than in a sadly sardonic vein. If this quartet is a study in contrasts across its movements, this one movement is a microcosm of that. The finale, Allegro molto, is a study in fleet and fast passagework.

As Beethoven’s first quartet marks the beginning of a musical journey and charts new musical landscapes, the second work does likewise. Jessie Montgomery, a violinist and composer associated with the Catalyst Quartet, is now New School faculty in both those roles and clearly her performance career proceeds in tandem with her compositional one. Montgomery’s “Strum” (2006, revised 2012) begins with pizzicatti and strumming of strings, combined with bowed melodic lines, and reveals manifold influences. Classical music overlaps with blues and prog rock, and in at least one instance flirts with Scandinavian metal; I could best summarize the style as a cross of Bernstein, Prokofiev (in his jazz and film scores), and Muhly. The whole is a pleasing composition that charts a range of emotions and territory even as it retains a thematic unity with the strum.

The program concluded with a portrait from another sound world which still maintained points of connection and thematic unity to the earlier works: Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91 (1929). Written after Berg’s “Lyric Suite” and in an “arch form” (so violist Benjamin Zannoni in his introductory remarks — I would describe it more as ring composition format), this high-Modernist music attempts to make sense of a fractured world, composing coherence in unsettled times. Does Bartók here reject the notion of lyricism Berg tried to maintain and re-create? The Allegro first movement brings violence and industrialization to the fore with irruptions and iterations sounding the peals of fracture and change. Prestissimo, con sordino follows with fast passagework yet muted, producing an effect of churning instability. A theme played sul ponticello recalls hearing poorly tuned radio transmissions; this paean to the frenetic speed of Modernism ends in an upward glissando sweep. The central movement, Non troppo lento, centers on a slower, melodic solo line in the cello, here ably dispatched (no mean feat), before returning to faster thematic material from earlier movements. First violin (now Justin DeFilippis) and cello have a duet conversation which turns to a brief pastoral moment of ornithological preciousness rounding out this third movement. The fourth, Allegretto pizzicato, plays with the possibility of pluck and strum; if Couperin called attention to the art of the touch on the keyboard, Bartók brings this same awareness to the pizzicato. The fifth and final movement, Allegro molto, opens with speed and intensity capturing urban soundscapes of expanding early 20th-century cities. More tender melodies play out against this sonic scrim. Here Bartók plays with silence and its heuristic power as this quartet nears its conclusion.

The technically accomplished and assured Balourdet Quartet is already adept at transmitting the emotions of notes on the pages. Their ensemble cohesiveness comes from an emerging shared identity. I look forward to a greater group awareness of the varieties of vibrato and how that can work to unify four lines into one. I have high expectations for increasing depth and the emergence of a sound, style, and identity over their time at NEC and into their career beyond.

This streaming concert did not come across without technical issues. As I learned in a scramble to log on and not miss the concert, one’s choice of browser matters. Safari would not work; fortunately, I bethought myself to try Chrome. In this age I would hope we have moved beyond such digital provincialism. There were some lags in the livestream video leading to dissociation of audio. The audio proceeded mostly without interruption, although there too I experienced some seconds of buffering. This could be attributable to my connection but as the sole user on a high-speed internet connection during the stream of this concert, and using a decently powerful if not brand new Mac laptop, I would not expect such issues — and have not experienced them with other livestreams. So I must conclude that this platform is not the most robust. I suggest future Schneider Concerts explore more stable and reliable options for delivery so as not to detract from the music at hand.

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

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  1. FYI, I had somewhat frequent problems with the video freezing and a couple times with the audio being interrupted, too. I have watched quite a few streaming concerts over the past several months. This one had the most issues by far.

    The sound engineering and video were excellent. A big “Bravi Tutti” to these wonderful young musicians who bring along with their high technical skills, tremendous energy, freshness, and creativity in their intepretive ideas. I loved hearing them play, and will very much look forward to their next concert.

    Finally, Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum” is an excellent work with the added advantage of being audience friendly. I hope it will gain a wide audience.

    Comment by George John — October 6, 2020 at 9:16 am

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