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The Audubon Quartet, founded in 1974, is a storied chamber music group, but not all the stories have been musical. In 2000, three members of the quartet – second violinist Akemi Takayama, cellist Clyde "Tom" Shaw and violist Doris Lederer (who is married to Shaw) – tried to fire first violinist David Ehrlich (who was not a founding member, but a replacement hired in 1984). A very public spat ended with the court-ordered sale of Shaw's and Lederer's instruments in order to pay legal bills and damages to Ehrlich. Only a last minute third-party purchase of the cello and viola, with a loan of the instruments back to the two musicians, saved the distinguished quartet from a bankruptcy and collapse in 2006.
Fortunately the Audubon Quartet survived, and has continued to commission and premiere new American music. In its appearance as part of the Asheville Chamber Music series, they presented a program of works by Beethoven, Serebrier, Wolf and most importantly Peter Schickele. Introducing the program, Mr. Shaw apologized for the lack of a coherent theme to the evening; he need not have done so. The evening was like a sampler of mixed chocolates, each one to a different taste, but all delicious.
First up was Beethoven's Quartet in G, Op. 18 No. 2. It isn't often that a Beethoven Quartet is the disappointment of the evening, but this performance was just plain dull. The Haydnesque precision of early Beethoven was there, but the playing lacked those elements that distinguished Beethoven from his predecessors. The performance simply lacked guts.
José Serebrier, born in Uruguay of Russian and Polish emigré parents, has had a modest career as a conductor and composer. His "Fantasia," in versions for string orchestra and for string quartet, is one of his best-known works. The music would sound as dense as an Ernst Krenek atonal piece but is leavened by Latin rhythms that seep into the work. Played very well by the Audubon Quartet, "Fantasia" approached the romantic heights of Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht," albeit Serebrier's night seemed bleaker than Schoenberg's.
Hugo Wolf's "Italian Serenade" was a third work before intermission. One of the first mature works of this late Romantic composer, the "Italian Serenade" was composed for string quartet in 1887; it was orchestrated five years later. For those familiar with Wolf only as a composer of great German lieder, it was interesting to hear demonstrated his ability (and the Audubon Quartet's ability) to "spin a story" with instruments alone.
Because Peter Schickele has been so successful as his amusing alter ego "P.D.Q. Bach," he is insufficiently recognized as a serious composer. In 1983 the Audubon Quartet commissioned Schickele to write his String Quartet No. 1, titled American Dreams. The Audubon is the definitive interpreter of the work. Its five movements include a second movement that explores the timbres and rhythms of American jazz, a lyrical middle movement ("Music at Dawn") based on the songs of birds and other sounds of the natural world, and a fourth movement that is pure dance – not a minuet or scherzo but a pastiche of Appalachian jigs and Native American ceremonial dances. One hears plucked cellos and rapid fiddling, formal tattoos and tom toms. Framed by opening and closing diptychs, the work is a unified and satisfying work that is profoundly American in concept. This was the highlight of the evening.
Extending what was already a generous length program, the Audubon Quartet played three Jerome Kern songs arranged for string quartet. "I Won't Dance," "All the Things You Are" and "I'm Old-Fashioned" made excellent use of the resources of a quartet – viola solos and all – and were an intoxicating nightcap.