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The premise of the Isosceles Quartet is intriguing enough – the Triangle's newest string quartet is led by the NC Symphony's Associate Principal Second Violinist, Jacqueline Wolborsky alongside three more NCS members, working together to "push the boundaries of traditional chamber music performance." In execution, the resulting performance was marvelous. Along with Wolborsky, the Isosceles Quartet are fellow violinist Elizabeth Phelps, violist Sam Gold, and cellist Nathaniel Yaffe. The quartet's inclusion in Chamber Music Raleigh's concert series at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) was a memorable start to what is sure to be an exciting year of concerts for this new ensemble.
The program was definitely one of variety; Caroline Shaw's experimental chamber work Entr'acte was bookended by quartets by Robert Schumann and Béla Bartók (the former intensely melodic, the latter nearly its antithesis). The four movements of Schumann's Quartet No. 1 in A minor are quite different in mood, but are united by their capricious nature – sudden moments of fiery outbursts are a sort of punctuation to the music. Another common thread in this performance was the molto espressivo of these four musicians, especially in the energetic Scherzo and Presto movements. It was obvious that the members of Isosceles were having fun with the music, digging into legato phrases and sections of rubato. Comparatively, the final movement was definitely the most technically challenging, with nearly constant motion and repeated scale-like patterns. The coda is suddenly and unexpectedly soft, with a beautiful chord progression and pastoral melody that is interrupted again by the expected presto ending.
The brief but masterful work Entr'acte highlighted the four musicians' intense sensitivity and ability to flawlessly communicate even the most subtle of expression. Before beginning to play, Wolborsky explained and demonstrated the unusual and colorful effects that are used in this piece – a "scratch" is where notes are bowed so lightly the pitch is almost nonexistent, instead playing a scratchy tone on purpose; a "sigh" is a throaty, descending glissando; various types of pizzicato are used as well. Entr'acte floats between tonality and atonality like a train of thought, flighty and sometimes losing its way before returning to the powerful pulsating chords of the opening. The piece was brought to a close with a solo moment from Yaffe on the cello, convincingly imitating the sound and rubato expression of a Baroque lute.
In contrast with the previous pieces, Bartók's String Quartet No. 4 is almost shockingly dense and unpredictable. Before the performance, Wolborsky compared this music to an interlocking ecosystem, where apparent chaos masks a carefully planned structure. She also highlighted the frequent use of a minor 2nd in the work's main theme and elsewhere, the textural symmetry of the five movements, and Bartók's inspiration in folk song and nature. This thematic analysis made a potentially confusing piece more accessible to the listener. The second movement, Prestissimo, con sordino was striking because all four instruments were muted, creating a far away and detached sound. Drawing from Bartók's inspiration from nature, the pedaled cluster chords from the higher three instruments in the third movement brought to mind the sound of wind beneath a lyrical melody in the cello. Despite this movement being cloudy and dreamlike, the four musicians played with beautiful, intentional expression.
The driving, Allegro molto fifth movement closed the program with what Wolborsky described as a "tribal rock concert." Filled with arresting and sometimes abrasive intensity, each player had an independent melody, giving the audience four fascinating focal points that united every so often. Naturally, with four musicians of such high caliber, this concept was true throughout the concert. 2018 is sure to be an exciting year for this new ensemble.