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The Verona Quartet performed in Moeser Auditorium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The quartet-in-residence for Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle (COT) joined forces with UNC Department of Music piano faculty members Clara Yang and Mimi Soloman, as well as members of the COT* and Vivienne Benesch, producing director of Playmakers Repertory Company. The program included works by Julia Adolphe (b.1988), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). It was a superb performance.
Featuring violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violist Abigail Rojansky, and cellist Jonathan Dorman, the Verona Quartet opened the concert with Saint-Saëns' beloved Le carnival des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) (1886). The French composer wrote it as a lark, a diversion from more serious compositions. And since its posthumous publication, it has become a children's classic. But it is far from a just a children's piece; there are lovely little gems, musical jokes that we grey-hairs appreciate. Coupled with the zany 1949 poetry of Ogden Nash, delightfully narrated by Benesch, and the keen sense of humor of the quartet, the performance provided a much-needed jolt of fun. And yes, I woke up in the morning with an ear worm – an animal not yet discovered during the late nineteenth century.
The more serious second half began with Adolphe's scintillating Star-Crossed Signals (2017). Commissioned by the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, the piece was premiered by the Verona Quartet. Dorman introduced the piece, explaining the composer's inspiration and thus, the movement titles: "Delta Xray" (military phonetic alphabet) and "Kilo Kilo" (International Code Signals) for vessels on the water. Creating an abstract soundscape, Verona communicated using tools of the stringed instruments like melody in sotto voce, and extended performance technique. I imagined the swish of the water against the hull, the radio, and the serenity of quiet evenings that lull crew to restless sleep; and the sudden loud dissonance that alert sailors on watch to react quickly. It took me away to white-knuckle sailing and cherished memories of being softly rocked to sleep on calm nights on the anchor. The quartet's attention to detail and tone, their communication and beautifully stated melodic lines gave the piece brilliance and life. Skillfully crafted and executed with such precision, this composition is sublime; and it's one I look forward to hearing again.
The Verona Quartet finished with the sensuous String Quartet in F (1903) by Maurice Ravel. At first received with mixed reviews, Ravel's quartet ultimately become part of the standard repertoire and loved by string players and audiences alike. Verona's singular performance romanced me to an evening of warmth and pleasure despite the cold rain.
The concert was memorable and a fine musical success. I regret, however, there were empty seats usually taken by enthusiastic local chamber music lovers. Verona returns to the Triangle in February - don't miss it!
* COT musicians who performed in Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals were: Zachary Hobin, double bass, Erin Munnelly, flute and piccolo, Marianne Breneman, clarinet. and Krista Siachames and Marc Dinitz, percussion.