An unusually large audience turned out on Saturday evening at the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center to hear the third concert of the Western Piedmont Symphony‘s Chamber Classics Series, featuring the Hyperion String Quartet. Chamber music is alive and well in the 21st century in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

The Hyperion String Quartet was founded in 1999 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and is now the Joseph Fisch/Joyce Axelrod Resident String Quartet at San Diego State University. Amanda Brown Brin is first violinist. Her sister, Rachel Brown Englander, is second violinist. Her husband, Jonathan Brin, is cellist. Unrelated by blood or marriage, but every bit a member of the group is violist Travis Maril.

Each of the three works performed is a musical outpouring of the composer’s deep emotional feeling about someone or something. The opening piece, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-91) String Quartet in G Major, K.387, is the first of a set of six quartets dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn, who greatly influenced Mozart’s composing of his later chamber works, and to whom Mozart gave the actual music scores, entrusting their care to him as if they were his children. All four movements are rich in content and development. Most notable is the third, slow, movement, an andante cantabile, which was played with great emotion and passion in a stunning tribute to Mozart’s tribute to Haydn.

Next came the Tenth Quartet, Op. 118, of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), written in 1964. Shostakovich lived his entire life in Russia, from the revolution, through Stalin’s terror, World War II, more brutal repression, and into the Brezhnev era. His music reflects the terrible turmoil of the entire Soviet era. His music is a reflection of his most personal emotions and inner thoughts of his outside world, tempered, at times, by the Soviet censors. This quartet can be heard both as joyous and optimistic, and as disturbing and full of conflict. There are four movements whose themes are complexly intertwined. Of particular note is the second movement, made of brutal themes played at a furious pace. So furious was this performance that there was an audible gasp from the audience at its conclusion.

The final work of the evening was the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). In May 1847, Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, a musician and composer in her own right, died prematurely, dealing a tremendous blow to Felix. He never fully recovered, dying in November of the same year at age 38. He composed the F minor Quartet as a response to this tragedy. It is the last work that he completed. The entire quartet is filled with tension and agitation, only breaking into an extended calm in the third, adagio, movement. The fourth movement returns to the agony and agitation of the first movement. It is a lamentation and elegy to his sister’s death, and the Hyperion String Quartet brought out all of the pathos and sorrow intended by the composer.

An assemblage of two violins, a viola, and a cello is, by definition, a string quartet, and the owners of these instruments may play music together, sometimes well and sometimes less so. The Hyperion String Quartet, on the other hand, is a single, living, breathing organism, playing as one instrument, bringing grand and glorious life to the music it plays. They are highly polished and finely tuned, like a well-oiled machine, but in no way mechanical. Their unisons are… well… in unison – absolutely. Their pitches are perfect, their timing and tempos unwavering and right on. Their emotions are emotional, their tensions, tense. It was as if all three pieces played at this concert had been written for them and that they had been playing them all their lives.

The Hyperion String Quartet will be going places, and we will, I hope, be hearing much more of them in the future.