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In the acoustically superb First Presbyterian Church in Morehead City, the American Music Festival presented the amazing, excellent Verona Quartet in a program they informally described as "nothing left to write," based on Schubert's comment about Beethoven's Op. 131.
Their first piece was by Schubert himself, his Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703. This was lyrical, (mostly) lighthearted Schubert, not the morose Schubert sometimes encountered. There are singable, repeating themes that gladdened my heart. It is theorized that this single-movement composition expressed all Schubert had to say on the subject, hence "nothing left to write." The playing was crisp and precise, flowing and smooth, rhythmically and intonationally flawless. It was the perfect opening.
Next came Gabriela Lena Frank's Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (2001). Verbal program notes by cellist Jonathan Dormand, supplementing the excellent written notes by WHQR-Wilmington's music director Pat Marriott, were very helpful in getting into Frank's complex world. The first movement, "Toyos," begins with challenging pizzicato notes from all four instruments; it took less than a phrase for the very slight raggedness of attack to be sorted out; then everyone was dead on. The second movement, "Terquedad," is violently energetic. "Himno de Zampoñas" was filled with delicate nuances and featured complex hocketing between the players. Frank's demands for some non-traditional sounds from the instruments resulted in a brief tuning moment before beginning the "Chasqui," which begins with two complimentary panpipe melodies, double-stopped on the viola. These are answered by very high and distant responses on the violins, very, very soft, tantalizing, almost inaccessibly out of hearing. Two more movements, "Canto de Velorio" and "Coquetos," continued in Frank's radical style and Verona's impeccable performance and brought much of the audience to their feet at the conclusion of this composition.
The third and final piece was the aforementioned Beethoven String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. This, the last of Beethoven's quartets, is a far cry from the four-movement quartets of his old teacher Haydn. Opus 131 is in seven demanding movements, a set of variations in the middle bracketed by three movements on either side. The performance without interruption between the movements emphasizes the modern nature of the piece; at the same time, it offers no place to hide, no chance for tuning or catching a breath. The Verona were totally equal to these demands. The first movement, Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo is a fugue, beginning coincidentally like Bach's G minor fugue. The transition into the second movement, Allegro molto vivace, was completely smooth and gave an indication of the handling of the rest of the piece. The performance by these powerful big music-makers was four hearts beating as one, with each performer playing to the other three and allowing us to listen.
Their impeccable performance brought everyone immediately to their feet for a standing ovation.
These world class musicians delivered a performance that was not just good by Morehead City standards, but good by all standards. They will repeat the music at 4:00 PM Sunday, January 30, in the Chamber Music Wilmington series in Beckwith Recital Hall on the campus of UNC-W.
Of interest to followers of the American Music Festival, Barbara McKenzie, for over thirty years musical director, has announced her retirement; she was presented with flowers from the board and received generous applause. The new music director will be Oskar Espina Ruiz, who was also present and spoke of his delight in continuing this strong series.