Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines is an ideal, intimate venue for chamber music, presented there by the Classical Concert Series, now under the aegis of the Moore County Arts Council and celebrating its thirty second year. The Parker Quartet, which opened the 2013-14 season, began its professional career in 2002 and got international recognition when it won the Concert Artists Guild Competition in 2005. The ensemble’s CD (of Ligeti’s String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2) won a Grammy in the Best Chamber Music Performance category in 2010. Daniel Chong is the first violinist and Ying Xue, who joined the quartet in May 2013, is the second violinist. Violist Jessica Bodner is married to Chong. Kee-Hyun Kim is the cellist. The ensemble presented an imaginative program that paired a little-known but brilliant work from a tragic era of the 20th century with Classical and Early Romantic works.

The String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat, K.428, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the third in a set of six quartets “Dedicated to Haydn.” Haydn established the standard form of four movements with increasingly independent scoring for all four instruments. K.428 is regarded the most Haydn-like of the set, especially for the playful hesitations and good humor in the Allegro vivace finale. The opening movement begins with an unharmonized motif in octaves and toys with many notes alien to the home key. The second movement is in tripartite form with chromatic harmonies, one of which bears a resemblance to the famous motif from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde composed some 76 years later. The vigorous third movement (minuet) has a melancholy trio section. The Parker Quartet turned in a beautiful classical interpretation that exploited Mozart’s full use of the potential of each instrument in turn. The viola was frequently paired with the second violin or cello. The other strings very often did far more than pair with or take up the first violin’s themes.

The highlight of the evening was the Parker Quartet’s dazzling performance of String Quartet No. 1 (1924) by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). The composer was of German-Jewish descent and was one of a huge swath of European composers whose music the Nazis labeled “degenerate” and who met their untimely deaths in the gas chambers or from diseases in the concentration camps.* Schulhoff was also an active communist but did not live to escape to another hell in Stalin’s gulags. Schulhoff’s surviving works reflect three stylistic periods. His early works incorporated aspects of Debussy and Richard Strauss while his Dadaist phase made use of absurdist elements. He anticipated John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) with a section made up entirely of rests within a larger piano work! His third period dates from 1923. His mature works integrate modern techniques with neoclassical elements, jazz, and a plethora of dance rhythms.

Schulhoff’s String Quartet No. 1, one his best works, has begun to be taken up by ensembles. It is in four movements. The first movement is bursting with raw energy along with an underlying folk-like rhythm. The second movement evokes the world of klezmer bands and has a melancholy feel. Glassy high harmonics and other eerie sounds are features of the third movement. The finale features further eerie scoring and is achingly beautiful. The Parkers turned in a performance by turns fiery and haunted with extraordinary and unworldly sounds. Their white-hot interpretation made this Schulhoff piece seem to match the exalted level of Shostakovich’s finest works. Viola players will love this work’s many opportunities for solos or striking pairings, which Bodner did magnificently. Kim’s clock-like ticking pizzcatos in the finale were arresting and ominous in view of the composer’s later fate.

Despite its higher ppus number, the String Quartet No. 3 in D, Op. 44, No.1, by Felix Mendelssohn, is less original and advanced than his earlier two, Opp. 12 and 13. It is in four movements and certainly abounds in good melodies but the scoring treats the instruments far less independently than Mozart’s K.428, which opened the concert. The first violin was almost always the dominant voice with much more imitative or accompanying roles for the other three strings. It lacks an elfin scherzo such as Mendelssohn seemed able to conjure up at the drop of a hat. Chong made the most of the almost solo-concerto role of for the first violin while Xue, Bodner, and Kim ably supported him.

This series continues on November 18 with a recital by pianist Valentina Lisitsa. For details, click here.

*Music lovers wanting an in depth exploration of this lost generation of composers ought to read Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis by Michael Haas (2013, Yale Press). Haas directed Decca Recordings series Entarte Musik, which introduced a broad sampling of lost music.