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Friday night's Music for a Great Space concert featuring the Telegraph String Quartet was one of the best chamber music performances I have heard of late. The Telegraph Quartet – Eric Chin and Joseph Maile (violins), Pei-Ling Lin (viola), and Jeremiah Shaw (cello) – was formed in 2013. The following year, the quartet was awarded the Grand Prize at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, and in 2016, the Naumburg Chamber Music Award.
The works on the program highlighted how three very different 20th-century composers from three different countries were affected by the cataclysmic events of World War II. Unknown to the general public, Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) lived in Warsaw during the war. Erich Korngold (1897-1957) was in Hollywood when Hitler annexed his native Austria, and he stayed in the U.S., becoming famous for his swashbuckling film music. Benjamin Britten (1913-76) was also in the U.S. on a concert tour when England entered the war. The composer was a pacificist, but he returned to his homeland to "do his part for the war effort" in 1942.
Maile served as spokesperson for the quartet, introducing each piece and providing some background material about the music and the composer. The evening began with an inspired performance of Bacewicz's String Quartet No. 4. In 1951, the Polish Composers' Union asked Bacewicz to write a piece for the Concours International pour Quatuor à Cordes (International Competition for String Quartet) in Liège, Belgium. She agreed, and the result was this piece, which won first prize.
The three-movement work opens with a slow, mysterious, and soulful introduction. Fast, questioning passages follow, juxtaposed with lyricism, all in a definite 20th-century feel. The listener was immediately struck by the musicians' wonderful intonation. The commitment and energy displayed by the quartet was consummate.
The slow second movement is meditative in nature and revealed an amazing number of textures that were vividly brought out by the group. The main theme of the finale is dance-infused, contrasting with a couple of slower episodes. The Telegraph Quartet's unbridled energy brought the work to its optimistic conclusion.
Korngold vowed that he would not write concert music until Hitler was defeated; his 1945 String Quartet No. 3. in D, Op. 34 celebrated the defeat of Naziism. The four movements portray a myriad of emotions.
The opening of the Allegro moderato features descending melodic lines conjuring up despair, while the perky, nervous outer portions of the Scherzo second movement surround a more somber central section. The Sostenuto "Like a Folk Tune" slow movement is a lament, which was movingly played. The finale featured some fantastically executed unison playing; uninhibited vitality and optimism infiltrated the entire performance.
In 1945, Britten and Yehudi Menuhin went to Germany to perform for concentration camp survivors. That experience (as well as the entirety of the war) gave rise to Britten's String Quartet No. 2 in C, Op. 36, which, like Korngold's quartet, was written in 1945. In this piece, violinist Chin traded chairs with Maile, becoming the de facto leader.
The opening movement begins with a slow, lovely introduction that produced some wonderfully delivered unison playing. The faster section that follows features some "fantasy-like" melodies, occasionally becoming ecstatic. The Vivace second movement features skittering melodies emanating from individual players as well as the ensemble at large; wild textures abound with extreme dynamic contrasts.
The finale, entitled "Chacony," references fellow British composer Henry Purcell (1659-95), who often used this form of variation. Incidentally, the first performance of this work was given on the 250th anniversary of Purcell's death.
The theme was first played by all four musicians in unison, once again displaying perfect intonation and ensemble. What follows, as Maile had explained earlier, is 21 variations, broken into four sections, with a cadenza by cello, viola, and first violin in turn separating each section. Of this form, Britten wrote, "the sections may be said to review the theme from (a) harmonic, (b) rhythmic, (c) melodic, and (d) formal aspects." The entire movement was a delight with the opportunity to hear members of the Telegraph Quartet as soloists.
The crowd of about 50 was obviously wowed by the entire evening's performance and gave the players a standing ovation, requiring the musicians to return to the stage several times. Upon leaving the church, I heard many comments about the superb quality of both the music and the performance. I couldn't agree more.