La Catrina Quartet is this season’s Quartet-in-Residence of the Western Piedmont Symphony, which provides classical music to the Catawba Valley of North Carolina. The quartet traveled from their home base to Hendersonville for an appearance at the Patton Auditorium on the campus of Blue Ridge Community College. The concert was the first of this year’s series presented by Hendersonville Chamber Music.

In 1913, the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada produced an engraving “La Calavera de la Catrina” which depicts an elegant, refined and slightly pretentious woman, but with only a skeleton in place of her body. This was perhaps the most notable of a series of Calavera (death’s head) engravings that Posada connected to the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. “La Catrina” has been frequently reproduced in paintings and statues, and has become a symbol of uniquely Mexican art. The quartet’s name thus alludes to the roots of the four players in Mexican culture and implies a uniquely Mexican ensemble.

Daniel Vega-Albela and George Anthony Figueroa are the violinists. Jorge Martinez plays viola and Alan Daowz plays cello. The four players were educated at Western Michigan University and Kent State University. They will complete their North Carolina residency in the spring, return to be the Quartet-in-Residence of the Chamber Music Festival of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for a second summer. Next season, a concert tour of Mexico and the United States has been booked.

The high point of the February 17 program was Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Lark” Quartet, Op. 64/5. Haydn would have smiled at the youthful joy and vigor that the players brought to this familiar work. Vega-Abela presented the soaring “lark” theme in the first movement with a little more verve than we usually hear. Some might say a bit of jazz crept in, but quite acceptably, since the three other strings were accompanying with all the elegance of an 18th century drawing room. The contrast underscored the thought that birds are the natural musicians of the animal kingdom but do not play by the rules of humankind. We experienced the freedom of nature and the conventions of society in a remarkably able collaboration.

Haydn’s Adagio Cantabile movement also features an extended solo for first violin, and there is another violin solo in the Vivace. This reviewer leaned back and contemplated the evolution of the string quartet. Haydn invented the form and excelled at it, often writing a solo with a three-instrument accompaniment. Beethoven, by contrast, often provided counterpoint between two or more voices and harmony through the remaining strings. There is something pure and fresh about the simpler Haydn structure, and the beautiful and confident playing of La Catrina brought out the purity and good nature of the composer.

Following intermission came Dmitri Shostakovich’s short String Quartet No. 7, Op. 108. The sparse and intense writing signals the composer’s internal turmoil late in his life. Sarcasm alternates with ominous portents, culminating in a third movement that presents a furious fugue. Beethoven’s late quartets end with affirmation in the face of his personal tribulations. Shostakovich’s tribulations were not medical but political, and his late quartets seem to end with resignation rather than affirmation. The performance evoked all the emotions of a talented composer making political compromises in some of his large-scale works and then letting out his frustrations through his chamber music. 

The program began with “The Bullfighter’s Prayer” by 20th century Spanish composer Joaquin Turina, in a surprisingly perfunctory performance. The quartet did not hit its stride until the Haydn. The scheduled program ended with another work from the Hispanic world, Astor Piazzolla’s “Four for Tango,” a substantial piece showing the Argentinean composer’s determination to treat the tango as a serious art form. His treatment of the tango reaches new levels in this piece, and the players managed the many special effects without allowing technique to distract from the narrative arc of the work.

Austria, Russia and Argentina were all well represented by these young Mexican players. While its chosen name may connote a uniquely Mexican ensemble, La Catrina’s performance highlighted an ensemble that seems simpatico with great music from anywhere in the world.