Over the many years I have been attending concerts by string quartets, several things have changed. One is that the two violinists more often now are co-equals, swapping between first desk and second desk. This is the case with the young Tesla Quartet. Tesla formed at the Juilliard School in 2006 and at present is the String Quartet-in-Residence at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, as well as fulfilling a community residency in Hickory, North Carolina when not touring. At their concert on Sunday in the First Congregational Church under the auspices of the Hendersonville Chamber Music organization, Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie shared duties on the two violins. Edwin Kaplan played viola, and Serafim Smigelskiy played cello.
Another thing that is now changing is the content of a string quartet concert. The traditional recital consists of two full quartets before intermission, then one after. Twentieth and twenty-first century composers less often structure their compositions in four-movement, twenty-to-thirty-minute chunks, as they used to do. In Sunday's case, the first and fourth pieces were from the Classical and Romantic repertoire (Mozart and Sibelius); in the traditional first and third slots, but between them not one, but two, compositions by the contemporary American composer Caroline Shaw were presented, with a total timing of about nineteen minutes.
First up was Mozart's String Quartet in D minor, K. 421, the composer's only quartet in a minor key and one of six of his dedicated to Joseph Haydn. The performance was well executed but, for my taste, it was the sort of interpretation that causes some people to think of Mozart as delicate and refined. I prefer my Mozart to be the robust, virile, operatic Mozart, at times even slightly raucous. I concede raucous would be out of the question for the D minor quartet, but operatic emotion would not be.
The two pieces by Shaw were "Entr'acte" (about eleven and a half minutes) and "Valencia" (which runs a little over six minutes). The quartet provided helpful commentary about the new music by Shaw, explaining "Entr'acte" as being inspired by a Haydn scherzo that the composer deconstructs and knits back together, piece by piece. "Valencia" is an appreciation of the taste of orange.
"Entr'acte" begins in a tonal vocabulary but with interruptions that are against the grain of the underlying composition. Pizzicato playing dominates large sections, as the musicians tear the theme apart. There are moments when the quartet scratches the strings but produces no musical notes, just very quiet white noise. Tone rows pop in and are abandoned. The pizzicato notes start to form once more into a coherent subject and then a lengthy passage sets bowed theme against an underlying pizzicato until it all falls apart again. Minimalism and microtonality get their moments on stage. The piece rides out quietly.
I liked "Entr'acte." To me, it represented Shaw's voyage through many modern techniques, only to come back in the end to tonality. We shared her voyage. This was my fourth hearing of "Entr'acte" by three different quartets. (Thanks to YouTube. If you go there, I recommend the Calidore String Quartet's performance.)
I felt "Valencia" lacked the appeal of "Entr'acte." A string quartet is a wonderful instrument for maximalist writing and always has been. Shaw's minimalist writing in "Valencia" was wearying.
The audience had worked hard listening to unfamiliar new music. After intermission, they were rewarded with a thrilling performance of Jan Sibelius's String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56 – "Voces Intimae." Lie took over first violin duties, and I felt she got the edge with her full tone and the delicacy of her delivery. Perhaps it was the repertoire; the Sibelius is filled with wonderful folk dances that reminded me of those collected by Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók in Hungary/Romany and neighboring countries. The difference is that Sibelius' music is profoundly Northern, with a different temperament.
The Tesla Quartet achieved something quite wonderful by presenting the Shaw and the Sibelius back to back. It educated its audience and then entertained them. What more can a quartet do on a Sunday afternoon?