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Chamber Music Wilmington continued its 2018-19 season, in Beckwith Recital Hall at UNCW, with a concert by the splendid Aizuri Quartet. By now, the listener goes to a Chamber Music Wilmington concert expecting world-class playing as a matter of course. This concert did not disappoint.
The quartet’s name is derived from aizuri-e, a Japanese tradition dating from the early 19th century in which woodblocks are printed in blue. Their four-work program was unconventional. Each half began with a masterwork of the Classical quartet literature and was followed by a piece written in the last few years. Both of these new works are on the group’s first CD released a few months ago. This album has been nominated for a Grammy, one of the Aizuri’s numerous accolades. The concert began with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op.18, No. 6. All of the six early Beethoven quartets are jewels, written in the spirit of Haydn, the composer who established the string quartet as a major genre. Beethoven studied with Haydn and admired his music. The opening theme was delightful, with a most delicate accompaniment. Such delicacy turned out to be a characteristic sound of the ensemble. The synchrony of the players was complete and the buoyancy of the movement was conveyed wonderfully. The soft, anticipatory transition to the recapitulation was especially effective.
The second movement was quietly expressive, while the shift to the minor in the middle section was laden with mystery. The first violin offered especially fine phrasing, and a surprise major chord had excellent resonance. The rhythms of the third movement were effectively conveyed and in the skittering trio, one suspected that the dancer was a bit drunk. The famous 4th movement – “La Malinconia” – shows Beethoven looking ahead to the emotional intensity and range of his later music. The quartet projected the mood shifts with perfect coherence and a sense of unfolding drama. There was another passage of exquisite soft and an effervescent ending.
The first half concluded with Blueprint by North Carolinian Caroline Shaw, written in 2016. Shaw is appearing with some frequency on Chamber Music Wilmington concerts. A piece of hers was played on the series last April; a concert featuring her will be taking place in March, postponed from the fall due to Hurricane Florence.
Blueprint is based on the Op. 18 Beethoven quartet which had just been performed. Its title can be taken as alluding to that origin, or to the aizuri-e tradition mentioned earlier. The CD on which the quartet recorded this piece is titled “Blueprinting.”
Shaw’s piece starts with allusion to the melancholy last movement of the Beethoven, then spins into a lyrically dissonant language as it unfolds associative connections and evolution based a good deal on a two-note rhythm. The shifts between ideas were handled – as in the Beethoven – with flawless unbroken flow. There was an extended pizzicato section which conveyed real color and phrase. This was followed by a passage which was beautifully soft. This showed the height of skill, and in the perfect resonance of Beckwith Recital Hall, every note projected. A pause conveyed a maximum of drama before the virtuoso coda led to a whimsical pizzicato ending. At a bit under eight minutes, the piece is short but rich.
After intermission, the program picked up with the Mozart String Quartet in F, K.590. This is primarily a melodious work, rather than dramatic or contrapuntal. Combined with the previous works on the program, the overall caste of the music to this point was by turns lighter or lyrical.
The first movement had comic interplay and the cello had some showy passages. Even in this superb group, the cellist, Karen Ouzounian, stood out for her obvious excitement as a performer. The ensemble brought fine phrase shapes, delightful melodies, and a brief passage of counterpoint. The sound was totally transparent – ideal for Mozart. The lovely melody of the second movement was highlighted with very sensitive balance among the instruments. The third movement, with a little bit of peasant dance quality, had good strong contrasts. The last movement came closest in spirit to the earlier Beethoven. It also had the most intensity of the piece in its middle section. The transparent sound of the quartet was wonderfully present here as well.
The last work of the program was Carrot Revolution, composed in 2015 by Gabriella Smith. This 11-minute piece, the most intense of the evening, provided a climax contrasted to what had come before. The name of the piece comes from the sentence attributed to Cezanne: “The day will come when a freshly-observed carrot will set off a revolution.” It was clearly written in this spirit, taking the framework of the string quartet, now over 250 years old, and freshly re-hearing what it can do, with imagination, vitality, and unexpected juxtapositions.
It begins with the cello being played as a drum, combined with scrapes in the other strings. Striking sound, intense material, played with total focus and drama.... Drumming and scrapes were combined with pitches such that one gained new ideas of what the four instruments can sound like. Other elements slide in: minimalism, and perhaps country music or other styles hard to identify in this context. Machine-like sounds – or maybe insects – combined with what could be the whine of the wind. The drumming and scratching came back at the end, with an abrupt stop which brought the humor of surprise.
The program could have ended with Mozart – familiar and the finest of music. Instead, the quartet chose to end with a pulsing new work and avant-garde sounds. This showed deserved faith in the music, in their own consummate performance, and in their audience. The Wilmington audience rose to the challenge, giving ample appreciation to the exciting conclusion of the concert.