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Western Piedmont Symphony Chamber Classics II – 2009-2010

by W. Gerald Cochran

October 31, 2009, Hickory, NC: The Western Piedmont Symphony held the second round of its “Battle of the Bows” in the newly-renovated auditorium of the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center, featuring the Kontras Quartet. The quartet was founded in Chicago, where all of its members met while performing with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. The members of the quartet hail from four different continents. Violinist Dmitri Pogorelov is from Russia, violinist Francois Henkins from South Africa, violist Ai Ishida from Japan, and cellist Jean Hatmaker is from Illinois. Their mission is to present chamber music to new audiences, and to present unfamiliar and new chamber music to all audiences. They have chosen the name “Kontras,” which means “contrasts” in the Afrikaans language.

To that end, the program opened with String Quartet in F, No. 2, Op. 92, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), which was written in 1941 when Prokofiev was in Nalchik, the Caucasus-mountain capital of what is now Kabardino-Balkaria, located between the Black and Caspian Seas. Incorporating native folk elements in the music in this seldom-heard quartet, Prokofiev produced a work that is Oriental in flavor, and both dissonant and lyrical at the same time. The performance by the Kontras Quartet fully realized the composer’s intent. They played with great power and great sensitivity, especially in the second movement, which is based on a native love song. The closing movement, based on a folk-dance theme, full of percussive and agitated moments, was played brilliantly.

The second half of the program opened with four short works, each representing the heritage of one of the quartet members, and each was introduced by that member. The first was “Lullaby” for string quartet by George Gershwin (1898-1937). This was Gershwin’s first attempt at a string quartet, and is based on a single melody passed around to each of the players. A delightful little piece, it was played softly and lovingly.

Providing contrast was the second of Five Elegies for String Quartet by South African composer Arnold van Wyk (1916-1983). Unlike western elegies, which are usually soft and plaintive, this piece, labeled “allegro feroce,” meaning furiously fast, is probably more along the lines of African mourning, more of a festive occasion. Again, the Kontras set the mood fast and furiously.

Representing Asian music was Tan Dun’s (born 1957) sixth of Eight Colors for String Quartet, titled “Drum and Gong,” in which all of the instruments are played without bows and become percussion instruments, using various pizzicato techniques, slapping of the strings, and beating the body of the instrument. This is a typical Tan Dun composition and the performance was quite colorful and, if you will forgive the pun, striking.

Completing our geographical survey was “Polka for String Quartet” by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). This is a delightful dance, and was played with great festivity.

Concluding the program was a work much more familiar to chamber concert-goers: String Quartet in F, Op. 96, “American,” by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). Written during the summer of 1893 while Dvorak was vacationing in the Czech community at Spillville, Iowa, it supposedly contains themes based on American music, particularly African-American, although Dvořák’s acquaintance with any American music was limited at that time. Be that as it may, the quartet has become an audience favorite. Again the quartet played with great spirit, enthusiasm, and brilliance.

Regardless of where they might wind up, the Kontras Quartet appears to be headed for a remarkable career. Not only are they extraordinarily talented, they are musically mature, have a sense of humor, and are good friends, all necessities for a viable ensemble.

Now a word about the “new” hall; with a new stage, lighting, curtains, and seats that better fit those of us who are no longer high school-sized, the auditorium at the Arts and Science Center is much more welcoming and has a much cleaner and warmer sound. It is now a top-notch venue for chamber and other smaller performances.

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