The Verona Quartet made its Maverick debut on Sunday, with “Italian Adventures,” a programmatic deviation (but not really!) from the Latino emphasis in the rest of the season. This adventure took us to present-day Italy and the origins of Latino—the word and the culture—i.e., Latin, the ancient language that dominated the world throughout the Roman Empire, even to its farthest reaches, and that forms the basis of many of the modern languages spoken today.
Sunday afternoon’s concert gave a substantial nod, in the first half, to Italy’s neighbors, Austria and Poland, opening with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 7 in E-flat Major, K.160, one of the so-called Milanese Quartets composed when the 17-year-old Mozart was living (temporarily) in Milan. Cheerful and civilized, with a genteel liveliness and comprising only three movements, it got the afternoon’s proceedings underway perfectly, and prepared the way for the afternoon’s tent-pole performance, the String Quartet No. 4, (1951) by Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz.
At certain point in a career, those of us in service to the Muse believe we have heard everything worth hearing. So, we just love discovering a composer who has completely evaded our notice, especially in the Verona’s delightful introduction. Bacewicz, a survivor of the deep wounds inflicted upon Warsaw during World War Two, emerged from the devastation with a full heart, a head full of music, and the energy to take up a career as a composer and performer. Witold Lutosławski referred to her as “a distinguished Polish composer of the 20th century and one of the foremost women composers of all time.”
The Verona’s interpretation, not to overstate the case, came as a revelation. Placed squarely in the post-war romantic mode, the profoundly beautiful work sounds lush and tonal in the manner of the great film scores, with sprinklings of folk melodies— à la Bartók and Kodály—the Quartet No. 4 has roots in classical forms, amid bold, quasi-symphonic harmonic gestures.
Violist Abigail Rojansky gave an engaging and articulate introduction to the piece and the prolific composer, whose output includes two violin concertos, two cello concertos, concertos for piano and for viola, four symphonies, seven string quartets, five violin sonatas, and a vast amount of chamber, piano, and vocal music, and two ballets. . . and, Rojansky told us, four novels.
The second half celebrated the late Geoff Nuttall, founder and violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, who performed regularly at the Maverick throughout the aughts. The Verona players resumed with Puccini’s mournful Crisantemi, a piece written to express the composer’s great sorrow at the sudden death of a close friend. The foursome delivered a delicate, transparent, and heartbreaking take.
In a very moving gesture, the quartet proceeded directly, without pause, to Verdi’s String Quartet in E Minor. The celebrated opera composer’s only essay in the form is a gracious work, the prodigious immensity we associate with his operas here distilled down into a cogent classical form. The Verona Quartet dished it up vibrantly, relishing the abundant solos giving each instrument a place in the Italian sun. The unfailing lyrical instinct in the composer’s heart shines through in the many melodies to be found throughout. A solo passage from first violinist Jonathan Ong reminded us of Verdi’s many glorious moments for soprano; Jonathan Dormand’s cello stood in for an lyric tenor.
The Verona Quartet has firmly established itself amongst the most distinguished such ensembles. The foursome serves on the faculty of the Oberlin College and Conservatory as the Quartet-in-Residence, and holds residencies at Nova Scotia’s Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance and North Carolina’s Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle.
Jonathan Ong, violin
Dorothy Ro, violin
Abigail Rojansky, viola
Jonathan Dormand, cello