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If you've been in a coronavirus-induced funk due to the shuttering of cultural events and are sorely in need of a lift, look no further than to the 68th season of the Asheville Chamber Music Series. Rather than cancel the season for reasons of health and safety during the pandemic, the Board courageously decided to reinvent our listening experience by moving it entirely online, billing it as "From Our Chamber to Yours: Our 68th Year… Our First Virtual Season." My husband and I easily accessed this first concert on YouTube via information provided by ACM assistant Sarah, and settled in front of our Roku TV for a satisfying evening of the finest chamber music to be heard anywhere. The members of the Jupiter String Quartet (Nelson Lee, violin; Meg Freivogel, violin; Liz Freivogel, viola; Daniel McDonough, cello) and pianist Michael Brown not only performed superbly, but reached out to the virtual audience by answering viewers' questions and discussing how and why they each chose a music career. The concert's sponsor was Suzanne Jones.
It is so easy to bemoan the fact that the event didn't occur in person at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Asheville, the long-time home of the series. But so much was gained in return! The Jupiters played from their "home space" in Smith Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where they are artists-in-residence. The historic hall which dates from the 1920s, is an acoustic gem, and its extraordinary resonance was not lost, filtered though it was through virtual space. Brown played from his own living room on "Daria," one of two late nineteenth century Steinways he owns. With shifting camera shots, one was able to witness not only his flashing fingers but his facial expressions and rapid eye movements as he tracked his physical movements up and down the keyboard. One also could glimpse his taste in art from the painting hanging on the wall behind him, and the sister Steinway ("Octavia") nestled beside Daria. How often are we invited into the intimacy of an artist's own home to hear him play where he practices?
There is a web of family connections within the Jupiters. Violinist Megan Freivogel is married to cellist Daniel McDonough and is sister to violist Liz Freivogel. While not related to anyone else in the ensemble, first violinist Nelson Lee also comes from a family of musicians. It was while he, Daniel and Meg were at the Cleveland Institute of Music that the nucleus of the group was formed, to be completed by Liz, who was then at Oberlin College. The quartet, now in its 18th year, has garnered numerous chamber music awards and performs internationally to critical acclaim.
Brown holds bachelor's and master's degrees in both piano and composition from The Juilliard School. Hailed by The New York Times as "one of the leading figures in the current renaissance of performer-composers," Brown concertizes widely as a soloist, with orchestras, and in recitals with his longtime duo partner, cellist Nicholas Canellakis. He, too, has won numerous prizes, and has an extensive discography of classical and contemporary music.
Each group took the opportunity to discuss their programming choices. The Jupiters opted to open with Haydn's String Quartet in A, Op. 20, No. 6, the last of the "Sun" quartets, so-called because of their cheerful character and because they were published with the emblem of the sun on the cover. They said they figured we were all in need of some cheerfulness and joy. They chose to end the program with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, a massive five-movement late quartet, for its connection to a time in Beethoven's life when he had struggled with a serious illness and recovered. This profound life experience shaped the third movement hymn the composer labeled as "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit in der Lydischen Tonart" (song of thanksgiving to God for recovery from an illness, in the Lydian mode), and is heard in our own coronavirus-heavy time with fresh ears. Brown, likewise, chose to open with Haydn, a dazzling Fantasia ("Capriccio") in C, Hob. XVII:4, and returned after intermission with Mendelssohn's incomparable Variations sérieuses, Op. 54. This homage to Beethoven was composed as a fundraiser in 1841 so a statue could be erected to him in his birthplace of Bonn.
I first heard the Jupiter Quartet in 2012 when they performed on this same series in Asheville, and they have since evolved into truly formidable players. The first movement of the Haydn (Allegro di molto e scherzando) showcased their intensity, cohesiveness, and flexibility. Phrases blossomed, attacks and phrase endings were perfectly synched, and the pacing was masterfully controlled. The playing of the first violinist was well-calibrated as both leader and member of the ensemble. Haydn's innovative writing for string quartet which required each instrument to be a more-or-less equal voice, was particularly on display in the final movement, an Allegro finale Fuga a 3 soggetti (fugue on three subjects). The quartet transformed what could have been a rather academic sounding fugal study into an animated conversation, culminating in a thrilling unison close.
The scene shifted to Brown's living room, where he introduced his first piece. Haydn had said that he'd composed his Fantasia ("Capriccio") in C for "amateurs and connoisseurs alike," perhaps intentionally (and impishly?) underplaying the technical difficulties within the work. Brown said that he found it quite challenging to play. To my eyes and ears, it sounded like an homage to Domenico Scarlatti with its hand-crossing maneuvers, register leaps and cascading roulades. Brown masterfully captured its whimsical character, by turns seriously declamatory and comically capering, with an arsenal of articulations, a comedian's perfect timing, and with nary a sweat.
After a brief intermission and some answers given to the viewers' questions, Brown returned with Mendelssohn's Variations sérieuses. (Brown is currently working on recording the entire catalog of Mendelssohn's piano works.) This set of 17 variations unfolded like an explosive set of concert etudes with its series of thundering octaves, dense figurations, blistering finger-work, and register leaps which threatened to consume the piano. I marveled not only at Brown's execution and power of concentration, but his unfailing musicality. I also found myself becoming envious of his neighbors, who must get to hear a fair amount of great music through the walls.
The Jupiters took over for the evening's final offering of late Beethoven. Beethoven's epic struggles with illness, isolation, and loneliness, especially into his late years, were channeled into his music. This Op. 132 Quartet is permeated with emotionality of an extreme nature, even for him, and as I listened, I became aware again of its organic nature. The ensemble played its quiet opening reverently, only to erupt in emotional and muscular musical expressions. They seemed to relish the variety of musical traffic patterns, where parts collided and converged, raged and sang. Their deep musicality was on full display in this as well as the third, massive movement. One could not help but to succumb to this musical seduction, and emerge transformed oneself.
I hope that in the near future we will be treated to a live performance by these amazing artists, and be able to tell them in person how much their musical gifts have impacted our very lives.