The only apparent link between the three works on the Rolston String Quartet‘s performance at the NC Museum of Art, presented by Chamber Music Raleigh, was that each was brilliantly performed (although it’s true that Dvořák did suggest that Haydn’s music helped to inspire his Op. 96 quartet). The musicians: violinists Luri Lee and Jason Issokson, violist Hezekiah Leung, and cellist Peter Eom. The program: Franz Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in B Minor, Op. 33/1, 1781; Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas, An Andean Walkabout (2001); and Antonín Dvořák’s “American” Quartet, No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (1893). The Rolston’s collective musicianship and virtuosity were evident in their mastery of these three widely differing musical styles.

Of Haydn’s some seventy string quartets, the Opus 33 set of six known as the “Russian” or “Gli Scherzi” quartets are less frequently performed than many of the others, for reasons unknown. The first performance of all six was likely on Christmas Day of 1781 in Vienna, where the Russian Grand Duke (Paul, later to become Tsar, to whom Op. 33 was dedicated) and Duchess Maria Feodorovna were the guests of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. The Rolstons, the men wearing suits/ties, Lee in black-and-gold concert dress, read the scores on iPads, turning pages with the touch of a foot on pedals on the floor at the base of their music stands. (This paper-to-pixels process has spread quickly throughout the chamber music world because it eliminates by-hand page-turning, as well as allowing an entire concert’s repertoire to be available without carrying all those heavy paper scores on tour.)

The B-minor quartet is the only one of Haydn’s six Op.33 works in a minor key, and it is the first to replace the previously-standard second-movement Minuet form with a Scherzo. The opening Allegro moderato was dancingly melodic, with careful attention to the score’s frequently changing dynamics. The brief Scherzo, true to Haydn’s tempo marking of Allegro di molto, sparkled with effervescence, while the following Andante showed the Rolston’s ability to make melodic lines sing as they brought out Haydn’s unusual voicings (two instruments playing a melody in unison or in octaves while the other two play an accompaniment figure). While still maintaining the essentially serious character of this work, the final movement, Finale: Presto, was a bravura performance which brought loud approval from the socially-distanced and Covid-19 vaccination-confirmed audience.

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank draws on her own unique heritage in much of her music. In Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, she has the quartet’s strings enter the world of Andean panpipes and musicians, blending the worlds of Quechua Indian and Roman Catholic religious rites. The six movements of Leyendas call for widely varying string techniques which require virtuosity not only of fingers and bows, but also aural dexterity, as the performers deal with passages approaching harmonic cacophony (especially in the penultimate movement, “Canto de velorio,” the only one of the six movements which is less successful as it interprets a professional singer hired to enhance the grief of mourners at a funeral). This music, which Frank later broadened to be played by string orchestra, is indeed a fascinating blend of old and new, with medieval references to form and melody co-existing with new technical demands such as tremolo glissandi. This music is an important addition to the repertoire; thanks to the Rolstons for their dedication of time in learning it and for their masterful performance of it!

The concert closed with a return to the genre’s traditional repertoire, Dvořák’s “American” Quartet. Composed in 1893 in Spillville, Iowa where there was a Czech community, (albeit widely dispersed on the sprawling farmlands), it uses a pentatonic scale as its unifying factor. If, in the second-movement Lento, the inner voices were too loud for Lee’s violin solo, that may have been due to the hall’s acoustics, which also caused Eom’s fingerboard pizzicato notes to blossom resonantly. I thought the last movement, Finale: vivace ma non troppo was, indeed, a bit troppo, but the Rolstons captured the contrasting moods of this chiaroscuro movement perfectly as they reveled in its singing, mourning, and rejoicing.

This was the Rolston Quartet’s first appearance in Raleigh; they will surely be welcomed back in future seasons.

Sidebar #1: Lee’s violin-playing is superb, but her often open-mouthed facial expressions can be distracting, as can her widely-ranging body motions as she plays. On the good side here, of course, is that one is free to simply close one’s eyes and luxuriate in the beauty of her playing.

Sidebar #2: CMR’s concert programs need an editor. Along with not having the movements of musical works listed as part of the program, such errata as misspelled words and having a composer’s name listed, only two inches of print apart, by two different spellings of his given name, are easily correctable.