In the first Carol Woods program of 2020, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle‘s very first quartet-in-residence graced the hall with a dazzling all-Beethoven program, celebrating the venerated composer’s 250th birthday, which is upcoming up this year. The Verona Quartet originally hails from Indiana University and has established itself as one of the foremost string quartets in the nation but has also won top prizes in England, Japan, and Australia. Appropriately, its members reflect the unity of four different nationalities (US, Canada, UK, and the Republic of Singapore) coming together in pursuit of a shared goal of making excellent music.

Honoring Ludwig van Beethoven’s legacy in the world of the string quartet, Verona treated its audience to some of the highlights, beginning with a single movement from No. 16 in F, Op. 135. This Allegretto movement begins tentatively, mysterious but rich. The quartet immediately established their refined, cohesive sound, full of playful moments but grounded always in exquisite balance. Violinist Jonathan Ong led with poise but enthusiasm bubbling under the surface, at least to judge from his body language. All of these professionals have the most expressive faces and bodies when they play; unlike some would-be “virtuosos” who writhe and whip long hair around, this quartet enhances its performance with the players’ obvious joy in the music they study.

A slight departure in tradition was the programming of two movements from Beethoven’s lesser-performed string trios. The first, featuring Ong, violist Abigail Rojansky, and cellist Jonathan “JD” Dormand, was the first movement from No. 1, Op. 9, a much earlier work. The three-octave unison was impeccable, breaking into a fugue-like section. Punctuated by a slightly showy violin melody, the work is earnest, sounding like a respectful nod to the chamber music of Franz Joseph Haydn, his former teacher. Beethoven’s love of impassioned harmony simmers throughout, but the work always returns and settles into a more conservative pattern.

The second trio, also from Op. 9, but this time the first movement of No. 3 in C minor, allowed violinist Dorothy Ro to take the lead while Ong took a well-deserved break. Ro’s leadership was just as strong; the work is a fully formed dialogue between the three voices, who interact individually in different ways but somehow form a cohesive whole. The violin seems to act as the moderator, presenting ideas, encouraging them to develop, and then concluding them. Despite the smaller structure, the players still sounded incredibly rich and passionate. There were maybe two or three questionable pitches all evening, and these were only ever in the most impassioned moments, never lasting more than a split second, and, if anything, adding to the effect of barely contained emotion.

Closing the program was the entire String Quartet No. 1 in F, Op. 18 – Beethoven’s first published quartet. Rojansky introduced the piece with an insightful remark about how the piece reveals many of the complex sides of the composer himself, but how the composition is such that the interpretation can change from performance to performance of exactly the same notes. The Allegro con Brio begins, again as a conversation between four, each part inexorably linked together with none dominating another. The players delivered changing moods, textures, and tempi that were showier, and with just a hint of the later, more bombastic nature of music Beethoven would deliver in his symphonies. In contrast, the second movement, Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato, showed the ensemble’s sensitivity, with engaging uses of silence imitating sighs. The movement leaves one breathless and expectant of what comes next.

Reaching the end of the program, the final two movements, Scherzo and Allegro charge along in rising exuberance, giving the composer a chance to really flex his muscles. Ong truly got the chance to show off his technical skills, too, in the fast, fiery solo lines. The ensemble together was versatile but wholly unified through rapidly changing tonalities, ranging from jaunty grace notes to rhythmic, accentuated motion, all culminating to an unbridled explosion of powerful chords to close the program.

Verona Quartet makes a huge statement as the first Quartet-in-Residence of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle. Their blend of refinement, precision, and sheer joy are an inspiration to musicians in the area. It is truly a gift that the ensemble will present over forty performances in the state this season, including workshops and partnerships with local schools. The next chance to hear the Verona Quartet players will be with the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, in its January 12 program “Rebels with A Cause,” featuring music of Mussorgsky, Menotti, and Mendelssohn. See our calendar here for the details.

Special Note: These artists are the latest recipients of the biennial Cleveland Quartet Award. Clearly, the COT chose wisely when it picked the Verona as its ensemble in residence! The list of all the Cleveland winners is here.