February 20, 2003

The Language that God Speaks

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When it comes to mastering string chamber music, there’s one basic cardinal rule to follow–coordinate all playing to perfected synchronization. This is necessary, for the distinct instrumental entities should all work to produce a cohesive harmony in tone, as well as a collective expression of the same mood and expressions. Otherwise, the congruous musical whole will end up sounding more like a skidding jalopy with all sorts of out-of-sync odds, and derail into disaster. Therefore, meticulous attention must be paid to intonation, rhythm, volume, speed, movement, and so forth so that the outcome is one of perfectly precise proportions. And that’s exactly how the Juilliard String Quartet’s Friday performance at the State Theatre in downtown Ithaca can be described–four separate musicians working completely in sync in both technique and artistic interpretation to merge into one formidable musical force.

The world renowned Juilliard String Quartet, made up of Joel Smirnoff and Ronald Copes as the two violinists, Samuel Rhodes as the violist, and Joel Krosnick as the cellist, has been filling auditoriums everywhere with the sounds of their musical integrity and ingenuity for over 50 years. An orchestra faces the daunting task of having to work as a gigantic group to stop, start, and move at the exact same time, but there’s a strength-in-numbers type of a situation that can somewhat hide weaknesses and produce a splashier spectacle in sound that is lacking in a small, intimate gathering of an ensemble. With a quartet, each member and their playing is always on the line, open to attack. That’s what makes the Juilliard String Quartet all the more impressive.

Under all the intense scrutiny, completely unaided by enhancing speakers or a tour de force of backup instrumentals, the four-man group was able to give an engaging performance that seemed to amplify the auditorium in symphonic proportions.

The quartet opened with the charming, light-hearted Allegro movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in G. Major. The sounds evoked the traditional, Old World charm of a European chamber performance, in which the clarity and even-tempered rhythms of courteous musicianship fill the room with pleasant, unobtrusive melodies that would facilitate the socialization of an intimate gathering. There was a momentary pause before the group segued into a slower and more plaintive Adagio cantabile. All attention was briefly focused on the melancholy solo of the first violin backed by the other three strings’ serenading accompaniment. The performers then piqued our interest with a surprising quickening of pace for a momentary allegro, only to return to the previous rhythmic placidity carried mainly by the cello.

After a relatively conservative piece, the quartet showed artistic daring by playing Gunther Schuller’s String Quartet #4. The opening of the Lento moderato instantaneously seduced audiences with a very otherworldly sound achieved by an array of surreal glissading chromatics, entangling listeners in a web of intricately layered overtones. The tempo quickened with the Allegro energico, in which a lively tit-for-tat of lower strings for upper strings, embellished with energetic pizzicatos, ensued. However, the piece returned to the mood of the cryptic first movement. The sound transitioned back into a structured disorder of wayward harmonics, with the deep, lulling tone of the cello serving as the supporting pedal point. The dreamy lull degenerated into a rather stunning climax, in which, one by one, each musician took leave of the stage until only the faint vibrato of the cello reverberated into oblivion.

The captivating final coda of the Schuller piece would have been a wonderful way to end the evening with flourish, yet the performers chose for their last piece Beethoven’s Quarter in C Major. However, this was a laudable move, considering that this quartet, the last in a series of Beethoven’s three “Rasumovsky” chamber pieces, was composed during his “heroic” period. Therefore, the third piece was much more intense than the more conventionally classical style of the first quartet. A flurry of agitated chromatics took the audience by storm in dramatic disarray, completely pushing the expressive capabilities of four instruments to new heights. Just as you seemingly know all the surprises that are in store for you, the next movement stunningly and abruptly transitions into a contrasting classical mode, only to melt back into the original cryptic aura with the mysterious Andante, a mood mostly fueled by the deep steady pizzicato of the cello. The later two movements culminated in a meshing of quaint classical charm with worldly 19th century romanticism, leaving the audience with the lasting impression of concerto-esque orchestral sounds amplifying a whole stage, but in actuality produced by a mere four amazing individuals.

Archived article by Sherry Jun