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The Chamber Arts Society presented the Miami String Quartet on March 11 at the Reynolds Industries Theater in Duke's Bryan Center, featuring a program of Franz Joseph Haydn, Robert Schumann, and Duke University Professor of Music and composer Stephen Jaffe, whose String Quartet No. 2 (Aeolian and Sylvan Figures) received its NC premiere. The program might be best described as "songs interpolated with dance" or "melodious lyricism interspersed with musical choreography." The MSQ, whose members are Ivan Chan and Cathy Meng Robinson, violins, Burlington, NC, native Chauncey Patterson, viola, and cellist Keith Robinson (sibling of Sharon Robinson, former Ciompi Quartet cellista), opened the evening's program with the "Lark" Quartet of Haydn. Their performance was lyrical and infused with an immediate ease of dynamic and expressive control – no threat of musical "bird flu" was detected here! The second movement (Adagio - Cantabile) was most engaging to hear for its wealth of expressive experimentations of key, dramatic gesture, voicing, and texture. The Finale, always a "hit" among both audiences and musicians, helped solidify Haydn's stature as an international "celebrity" of his day. The MSQ took off at such velocity that the music took on a near-breathless quality that came to a technical, emotional, and dynamic climax during the perpetuum mobile fugato section. Chan did an amazing job keeping the tempo from destroying the ensemble's cohesiveness by stretching the tempo at one crucial spot, at the conclusion of the fugato section. His move was most daring, confirming the earlier statement praising the Quartet for its "immediacy and control."
Stephen Jaffe's String Quartet No. 2 (Aeolian and Sylvan Figures) was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for the Miami String Quartet and given its world premiere in Philadelphia last March. Triangle audiences should be familiar with Jaffe's name and connection to Duke by now (after 25 years), but this is the work that confirms his contribution to the continuously evolving and growing repertoire of the string quartet in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jaffe kindly provided notes for the audience to help illuminate the imagery, which evokes either rustic woodland scenes or "arboreal-backdrop ballet." Needless to say, the quartets of Debussy and Ravel were not far from any maven of the repertoire during the opening "sylvan dance" which at times resonated with an Aeolian modal sound. Lovely octave writing played "between the Robinsons" (second violin and cello) clearly recalled the Ravel String Quartet. Several features from each movement stood out: pointillistic writing (reminiscent of Anton Webern and Georges Seurat's famous painting), the interesting chirping of the "Scherzino chickadee,'" the quiet, ponderous bowing of the "Syrinx" ("contemplative breath"), and an eight-note idée fixe that is passed back and forth and recalled in later movements. This motif gives the audience a clear and satisfying sense of "getting it" – the ability to follow and understand the composer's structural game plan – while the work is fresh in their ears and memory banks.
The string quartets of Robert Schumann are not easy to play, nor are they always easy to follow and appreciate. So much of Schumann's output is influenced either by the Germanic musical lineage in which he took effusive pride or by the Romantic spirit that led and inspired much of his vocal and chamber music. These influences are also bound up within the two contrasting aspects of his musical "psyche" he referred to as Florestan and Eusebius, and they do show up in this quartet [Op. 41/1], even between instrumental dialogues. The MSQ made both lyrical and passionate "sense and sensibility" of it throughout. It was in this quartet that the beauty of the inner voices shone forth, especially in the Adagio movement. The preceding Scherzo movement clearly recalled Mendelssohn – and may well have been Schumann's personal gesture of musical tribute to his friend and kindred Romantic spirit. The finale of the Schumann quartet actually recalls the finale of the Haydn "Lark" quartet, as both movements were based of hornpipe-like dances. Therefore, Schumann can't be faulted for paying tribute to as many of his musical "ancestors" as he could! The musicians were curtain-called sufficiently to warrant a repeat of the "Scherzino chickadee" movement of Jaffe's Aeolian and Sylvan Figures as an encore. Joe and Elizabeth Kahn provided most helpful program notes for the Haydn and Schumann quartets; I thank them for making my job – a few hours work – faster!