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Three of this season's four Chamber Music Wilmington concerts have been given by string quartets, comprising almost a mini-survey of exciting groups performing in the medium. The Vera, only four years old, has already garnered a list of prizes and residencies. They are currently in residence at the internationally-renowned Curtis Institute of Music.
This concert began with the String Quartet in G, Op. 76, No.1, by Joseph Haydn. As one experiences in Haydn over and over, this late work fairly bubbles over with rich writing. The opening exemplifies this: it is a mini fugato full of the best of spirits. What was apparent from the first chord was the large, full sound of the group. The performance of this movement was graced by tight rhythm throughout.
What started to become apparent in the second movement was the very fine soft tone of the quartet. This movement also had excellent long lines. The third movement minuet returned to a fun atmosphere. Here there are sharp, humorous shifts to a repeated note figure which, rather than funny, came over almost as aggressive. This was the only movement in the concert where the tonal quality of the quartet was arguably not always ideal.
The last movement contrasts from the others by beginning in G minor, rather than the G major of the work as a whole. Haydn's use of key here is one of the wonderfully inventive features in the piece. In this performance, the rhythm stood out – a four-note figure that was always sharp and precise. The surprise shifts at the very end, after the light-spirited country dance quality of the major mode has finally been restored – giving it a whole new context – were funny, bringing the piece to a delightful conclusion.
The following Quartet in F by Ravel highlighted the exquisite tone of the group. The quartet seemed to revel in the beauty and perfection of its ppp. The superb acoustics of Beckwith Recital Hall carried everything flawlessly; it is an ideal hall for the Vera Quartet.
In this piece, the violinists switched. The very fine lyricism of Pedro Rodriquez playing first violin stood out immediately. Along with the full, round tone of the group noted earlier, one experienced great delicacy. The second theme, so very wistful as it is, was nothing short of exquisite. It is an interpretive choice to take this section, marked a tempo, obviously slower than the opening. It was so full of expression that one wanted to simply take as it was. The entire movement projected vivid colors, in one passage orchestra-like swells. One noticed also the fine sense of timing between phrases and changes of ideas. The group likes taking time between phrases. This leads to a very expressive sense of pace.
The lively second movement was transparent and delicate. The first section ended with one of those ppp moments which made this group stand out in color and expression. There was a sense of gentle suspension as the B section gave way back to the A, and another wonderful ppp leading to the end. This group has sometimes interpreted pp to mean maximally soft. It is an interpretive liberty, one could say, done with great expression and effect and producing many passages holding a very special sound.
The third movement was most sensitive, with beautiful brief returns of material from the first movement. The viola (Inés Picado Molares) and cello (Justin Goldsmith) had lovely solos. There were points when the spacious sense of time might have weakened the overall flow of this extended movement. But the expression was so fine that wanted to simply enjoy it. In a sense, that is what the best music-making is about. The high-lying ending was gorgeous.
The beauties described previously, characterized the fourth movement as well. Big sound, vigorous rhythm and scintillating colors combined to create an effective conclusion to this masterwork which, at nearly a half hour, seemed short.
The concluding work, following the intermission, was by one of Argentina's great composers, Astor Piazzolla. He is perhaps best-known for his tango-style music and has found a secure place on the concert stage today. This piece was titled Estaciones Porteñas (Seasons of the Port City – Buenos Aires in this case).
Katie Hyun took over again as first violin and was immediately strong in the scraping rhythms of the opening. The first movement is somewhat rhapsodic, particularly in what one might call the second theme. There were irregular rhythms, a first violin solo with big, showy leaps, and an ending which simply cut off in the middle of a glissando. (There is a different violinist profiled on the quartet's website and shown in several photos. It was odd that at the concert no mention was made of this change in personnel. Read the bios of Rodriguez, Molares and Goldsmith here.)
The group began the work with "Buenos Aires Autumn," which is the season now in South America. The following "Buenos Aires Winter" movement began sustained, with fine, thoughtful lines featuring the second violin and viola. Alternations of ideas gave the movement a free quality. "Buenos Aires Spring" arrived with more violin scraping followed by high energy. A beautiful fade offered another moment of wonderful soft.
The ending movement,"Buenos Aires Summer," was something of a joke in taking ideas from the "Winter" movement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. There was a beautiful inner section with gentle pizzicato and a solo in the first violin. Material returned from the first movement, which gave the piece the sense of a cycle. The very ending was another varied quote from Vivaldi, and like the first movement, this one cut off on a funny note, stopped in the midst of a rising glissando.
The performance was effective. It is an arrangement (partly done by the group's cellist) of a piece Piazzola wrote for a more indigenous band instrumentation. One sensed that the string quartet could not match the colors envisioned in the original. But this invigorating music, excitingly performed, brought the concert to a rousing conclusion and left one wanting to hear more of the Vera Quartet.