The widely acclaimed Verona Quartet, performing as the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle‘s string quartet in residence, brought bold interpretive approaches to an enthusiastic audience at the PSI Theater. The four accomplished musicians represent four nations: Violinist Jonathan Ong is from Singapore and violinist Dorothy Ro is from Canada. Violist Abagail Rojansky grew up in California and cellist Jonathan Dormand hails from the UK. Together they represent interest in community outreach, interaction with other art forms, and bold, no-holds-barred interpretations of the string quartet repertoire from Classical to Contemporary.

This concert, titled “Visionary Voices,” featured three quartets from the early 20th century, beginning with Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, to which he attached the subtitle “Intimate Letters.”  Composed in 1928 for the Bohemian Quartet, it was inspired by his long spiritual friendship with Kamila Stösslová who was 38 years younger and happily married. The quartet was written as an expression of their relationship as revealed in their 700-letter correspondence, by far most from him.

The first movement begins with two firm statements of the main motif by the two violins over a cello trill. This is followed by the viola in eerie harmonics. A few measures on, the cello restates the main theme. So develops the first movement with frequent sudden changes in mood. Janáček made it clear that the viola most embodied the spirit and nature of his unfulfilled love of Kamila. Violist Rojansky made these passages meaningful with no undue showmanship.

The balance of the quartet was excellent throughout the performance. It was especially notable in long diminuendos that involved polyphony in the upper three voices and pizzicato in the cello. As the music grew softer all four instruments grew softer at the same rate, maintaining balance. The first movement ends with five measures marked Grave and a metronome marking of 63 quarter notes per minute. The last chord begins piano and swells to fortissimo.

The third movement is said to represent the child that was never to be had from this fanciful relationship. It is a bit on the dark side, and much of the movement is sung in homophonic chords. In places it was like a lullaby and in others, playful.

The fourth movement has a jaunty gypsy feeling. The work is primarily tonal, but with some added dissonances throughout. It ends with repeated D-flat major chords with an added E-flat. The performance was bold and passionate. The technical challenges were solid and precisely handled. The interpretation was poetic and honest.

The second visionary voice was that of Karl Szymanowski (1883-1937). He wrote his String Quartet No. 2 in late 1927, ten years after his first one, specifically to enter into a composition contest, in hopes of winning a generous prize. He said of the work, “I have no idea if it’s worth anything! (But I do think it will sound very well).” He didn’t win, losing out to Béla Bartók. But he created a colorful sonic adventure through creative use of a wide variety of string instrument articulations and the use of tremolos, trills, and harmonics as well as dramatic tempo changes and dynamics contrasts.

This work is constructed in three movements. The first movement is sonata-allegro in form and other-worldly, quiet, and ethereal all the way through. The second is a rondo with variations, much more rambunctious and energetic. The third movement is a double fugue displaying some awesome counterpoint. The composer makes significant use of folk music of the area of his youth spiced with tangy dissonances. After a brief return to the quiet ethereal music of the first movement, the chase picks up again and builds to a brilliant climax.

The Verona Quartet seemed quite at home with this music and its variety of sound-making technics. The ensemble play was precise, balanced and unified. Each of the four instrumentalists seemed to know exactly where the other three were, musically and emotionally, at every moment.

After a short intermission we were treated to a rapturous performance of Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F – the “American.” It was written in only a few weeks while he was on vacation in Spillville, Iowa, where a number of Czech immigrants had settled. His children came to visit him there and he was most relaxed, unlike his homesick mood in the bustle of New York City, where he was employed as director of the National Conservatory.

Dvořák sketched the quartet in three days and completed it in thirteen more days. It was his intention “to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward.” He did not supply the nickname but did leave the sentence on the score, “The second composition written in America.”

It is indeed full of lyrical melody suggestive of African-American spirituals and possibly Native American melodies. Some sound like Scottish folk songs from Appalachia. What all these sources have in common is the pentatonic scale. Sit down at a piano and let your fingers wander randomly on the black keys only and you will surely produce a delightful ditty. But it took Dvořák to write an “American” Quartet.

It was a happy climax to a deeply gratifying and enriching evening. It will be a pleasure for many across the North Carolina landscape and especially the Triangle area to hear this outstanding COT quartet-in-residence in the coming months.