In its first two concerts of this season, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild ran an experiment in order to determine a permanent venue for its concerts. It held the first concert, by the Eroica Trio, in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater and the November 11 concert by the Alexander and Ciompi Quartets in the Meymandi Concert Hall, issuing ballots to the audience to state their preference. 

Actually, quite a bit rides on this choice. It costs nearly four times as much to rent Fletcher, with its 600 seats than Meymandi with nearly three times the number. So the Guild hoped that the latter hall would prove suitable. The huge cost difference hangs on the fact that renting the completely unequipped Fletcher entails hiring a complete tech crew to handle stage management, lighting and sound. By contrast, Meymandi has everything from lighting to music stands ready to go.

Unfortunately, as far as we were concerned, there was no contest. While Fletcher has its shortcomings, the sound being dry and hard to balance in the absence of a proper sound shell (which we hope will be coming, the stock market permitting), Meymandi is just too big for a string quartet. The hall sounds great with a large ensemble, but the Alexander Quartet sounded the way an image looks through the back end of binoculars.

Despite acoustical shortcomings, the Alexander Quartet- violinists Ge-Fang Yang and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarborough and cellist Sandy Wilson-in Residence at the San Francisco State University, lived up to its billing. In the first half of the program they balanced Beethoven’s Quartet in G, Op.18, No.2 with the Quartet No.4 in D, Op.83, by Shostakovich. The Quartet approached the Beethoven with a light touch appropriate for this cheeriest of his quartets and a throwback to Haydn’s sunnier works. The Alexander emphasized the happy mood, especially in the Adagio cantabile of the second movement – where the allegro middle section burst forth in a delightful surprise – and in the sprightly finale.

The shift in mood for the Shostakovich Quartet, one of his grimmer statements, could not be more dramatic. Shostakovich wrote the work while he was in the commissars’ doghouse, accused of “formalism,” and with much of his music banned from performance. The Quartet is an anguished expression of his misery and despair. The challenge in performance is to maintain the emotional tension in spite of the narrow range of dynamics and tempo. The Alexander met the challenge beautifully; as the last anguished tones faded away, the audience was reluctant to break the spell.

On the second half of the program, the Ciompi Quartet joined the Alexander to perform Mendelssohn’s Octet in E Flat, OP.20, the incredible work of a 16-year- old prodigy. The work is an amazing combination of a master composer, in control of every aspect of his craft, and the infectious ebullience of a teenager. 

While the Octet presents a fine blend of the eight strings, the first violinist has a commanding role. As a tour de force the two ensembles, who had performed the Octet at Duke the previous evening, switched roles with the Ciompi playing the lead quartet on Saturday and the Alexander taking up that role on Sunday. Coordinating eight musicians to perform without a conductor requires a precision that only long-time experience imparts. Experienced quartet players can read the subtle signals and body language of their three colleagues, but combining two such ensembles is when the challenge really begins. By and large the coordination between the Alexander and Ciompi Quartets was excellent, their performance as animated and youthful as the work requires. The first violin has an exceptionally prominent and exposed part in this work and Yang played it with precision and flair. Only in the scherzo, with its rapid bowing, did a few minor miscues occur.

As anticipated, the Octet, with its larger forces, worked much better in Meymandi than a single quartet, but seldom does the series program ensembles of this size. While recognizing that the Guild’s financial resources are limited, it seems that some accommodation could be reached with Fletcher. After all, how much tech support do we need for a few chairs, music stands and simple lighting?