This concert marked the beginning of Chamber Music Raleigh’s 80th season. Founded in 1941 as the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, these 80 years represent a continuum encompassing the finest of chamber music, including internationally-acclaimed string quartets.

“What’s Past is Prologue,” wrote Shakespeare in The Tempest. In their 2021 concert season, the Aizuri Quartet (violinists Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa, violist Ayane Kozasa, and cellist Karen Ouzounian) gave this title to one of their intriguing programs of string quartet music old and new.

Unlike so many of their concerts during this pandemic-scarred year, this one was “live,” with both audience and performers masked. To accommodate more listeners, Aizuri agreed to shorten their program to an hour of music, and to perform it twice, once each for two different and widely-spaced audiences at the NC Museum of Art. While this meant that we did not get to hear Tom Morrison’s Sea Change, the program opened with one of the newer works for this medium, Jacob Garchik’s arrangement for string quartet of Rhiannon Giddens’ 2016 song “At the Purchaser’s Option.” Giddens’ lyrics are in 3 stanzas, each followed by a chorus. Its rhythmic pattern (dactylic tetrameter) was immediately transformed from Giddens’ voice/banjo/bass/beatbox medium into the string quartet’s equally rhythmic pizzicatti. The different stanzas were echoed by varying combinations of bowed and plucked strings, and the intensity of Giddens’ music, itself crafted in the Renaissance form of the chaconne, was captured by the equally-intense Aizuri performance. A 2016 video of Giddens performing this song may be found here.

This 21st-century music was followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1825 Quartet in E-flat, Op 127. What a magnificent performance! The Aizuri’s instruments are so well-matched in their sonorities that every line and every note was clear. Their faithfulness to Beethoven’s myriad changes of dynamics was exemplary – pianissimos at a whisper, and fortissimos demanding. The quartet’s sensitivity to the music and to each other was on display throughout, not least in following cellist Ouzounian’s cues for the first movement’s closing ritardando and final chord.

The second movement, an adagio theme-and-variations, was simply exquisite. Its opening pp / molto cantabile passage is a foretaste of the opening of Brahms’ German Requiem. The variations were highlighted by Frucht and Saegusa’s responsive dialogues, Kozasa’s whole-body approach to her viola-playing. (while string players’ movements can sometimes distract, hers was simply part of her music-making, totally natural and a visual ornament to the music), and Ouzounian’s superb varying of her vibrato speed to increase the intensity of notes.

The third movement (not just the usual Scherzo, but marked Scherzando vivace) sparkled as the group easily negotiated the challenges of Beethoven’s quasi-fugal passages, unison passages for all four musicians, rapid changes of dynamics, and spiccato bowings. These young musicians are indeed masters of their craft. The final movement’s allegro con moto, with its rapid changes of mood, its scoring sometimes requiring the cello to play in the e-string range of the violin, and its forward-looking dissonances, received a bravura applause.

As a gentle farewell encore, the Aizuri Quartet played “The Song of the Little Partridge,” a folk-song set by the Armenian composer known as Komitas.

“The past is prologue,” indeed… the future of the string quartet medium, its creation dating back to Joseph Haydn’s Opus 1 and 2, is in good hands as younger ensembles take up the mantles of the older great quartets. The music itself is part of that continuum: there would be no Brahms without the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op.127, nor would there be the harmonies of Shostakovich without the final movement of this quartet. New music continues to be written in our time for this time-honored ensemble, insuring that it will continue to adorn the lives of future generations as it has ours.

Happy 80th, CMR — and bring Aizuri back soon, for they are among the finest.