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For much of the Twentieth Century, Prague, and what is now the Czech and Slovak Republics, turned out great chamber ensembles in the way other nations turn out athletes. With the creation of such nurturing festivals as the Banff Chamber Music Festival, Canada is making strides toward becoming the dominant farm team for chamber music in the Twenty-First Century. An early star entry, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, is a frequent guest throughout this state and is Quartet-in-Residence at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. A near-capacity audience in Reynolds Theater, in Bryan Center, Duke University, heard a concert that heralded the rise of another musical luminary when, for their second concert of the 2006-2007 Season, the Chamber Arts Society presented the Borealis String Quartet.
The Borealis String Quartet is currently Quartet-in-Residence at the University of British Columbia. Formed on that campus in the fall of 2000, the ensemble has had a meteoric rise. As the first ensemble selected for UBC’s string quartet training program, the Borealis was mentored by Andrew Dawes, formerly first violinist of the Tokyo and Orford String Quartets. They also worked with the Emerson String Quartet in the inaugural season of its Chamber Music Workshop at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.
From all of her choreographic or gymnastic thrusts, twists, and turns, I would not be surprised if Borealis first violinist Patricia Shih had worked with such famous contortionists as Geoff Nuttall or Adela Peña, first violinists of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the Eroica Piano Trio respectively. Some purists are put off by so much unrestrained movement while many novices perceive it, rightly or wrongly, as demonstrating involvement. Deadpan performances turn off many of the younger generation. The key thing is the musical result, what we hear. On that criterion there are no caveats about Shih’s amazing performance. She played with a warm tone and immaculate intonation no matter how high the note or how many rapid ones there were. Her articulation was extraordinary. Her colleagues, second violinist Yuel Yawney, violist Nikita Pogrebnoy, and cellist Shih-Lin Chen matched her technical standard more sedately, and blended beautifully.
A substitution to the printed program opened the concert with Mozart's wonderful Quartet in F, K. 590, replacing Beethoven's Quartet No. 2 in G, Op. 18. The composer wrote this last of his string quartets in the hope of attracting the patronage of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, a fine amateur cellist who had studied with Jean-Pierre Duport and was an admirer of Haydn and Boccherini. It was part of four completed out of six promised “Prussian” quartets that feature the cello prominently. Composition of his opera Così fan tutte caused Mozart to relegate this commission to the back burner. The four were printed in an inaccurate edition by Artaria the day after the composer’s death.
The Borealis turned in a luminous and serene performance with well-chosen tempos that gave the music room to breathe by paying close attention to dynamics and phrasing. The high point was the miraculous Allegretto, which seemed spun outside of normal time but with just enough forward momentum. Chen’s deep, reverberant cello sound made those bars intended to tempt a King glow. This presentation was a model of the current approach to classical style.
Shostakovich's Quartet No. 4 in D, Op. 83 (1949), was a complete contrast to the Apollonian world of Mozart. Because of Stalinist cultural purges with the denunciation of the composer’s “formalist” tendencies and his growing use of folk-like elements that evoke Jewish persecutions of the time, this work joined the “desk drawer” reserved for the composer’s most revelatory works. The opening movement is unusual. It is almost cheerfully pastoral and nearly a third of it is dominated by melodies above a bagpipe-like drone. The first violin dominates the lovely second movement, its warm melody being accompanied by the sarabande rhythm of the other strings. The eerie third movement is played entirely with muted strings and leads without pause to the last and longest movement, which is dominated by Jewish or Klezmer-like modes and rhythms.
If the Borealis players did not conjure up as dark and sepulchral a sound as some Russian ensembles have done, there was nothing else wanting in their quiver of techniques applied to the Shostakovich Fourth. Dynamic range was extreme and carefully gauged, while fast passages showcased extraordinarily clean articulation. Shih’s weaving of the seamless Romance in the second movement drew in the listener. The interpretation of the fused last two movements was spectacular. Chen’s pppp harmonics at the conclusion was both breathtaking and some of the quietest playing I have heard in 30 years of concert going.
After decades of unjustified snobbish neglect, the chamber music of Felix Mendelssohn is finally getting its due. His Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, was his last completed piece of chamber music and is one of his most impassioned utterances. It lacks a filigree and fleet scherzo, but parts of the opening and last movements have some of his quicksilver quality. The Borealis Quartet’s interpretation was deeply committed, probing all the dark corners of the work. It was amazing to hear every note in the fastest passages so cleanly voiced.
Perhaps the spirits of Dvorák and Gershwin hovered near during the richly textured gospel tune, "Deep River," the Borealis Quartet played as an encore.