March 9, 2009

The Sound of Strings

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On Sunday afternoon, the iO String Quartet — a New York City-based ensemble whose self-proclaimed interest is in “finding a common aesthetic vision between the works of the past and the works of today” — played to a near-capacity crowd in Barnes Hall, following their week-long residency here at Cornell. The iO Quartet was formed in 2005, and is comprised of four enterprising musicians with degrees from prestigious music schools — Christina McGann, violin, Stephen Miahky, violin, Elizabeth Weisser, viola and Christopher Gross, cello. Since its inception, the group has played around the world, presided as the 2006-08 Billy Joel Graduate String Quartet in Residence at SUNY Purchase, won several awards and undertaken the “iO: inside Out Chamber Music” concert series.
The concert Sunday was enthusiastically received by the audience, and with good reason — the performance can only be described as excellent. All four members of the quartet are fantastic musicians and their rapport with each other is impressive, making for a great balance of sound. More than just staying together, each member felt the mood of the music and the tone of the other players — they were intense together, they were fluid together, they were sad and beautiful and joyous and just about everything you can be, together. One of the group’s greatest strengths actually lay in the most complicated and intense sections: the faster they played and the louder and more intense they got, the more you recognized and admired their skill (and their ability to sound like way more than just four musicians).
I think my favorite moment of the performance was actually the first movement of the first piece, Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, from opus 95, by Ludwig van Beethoven. I liked this movement not because it was any better played than the rest of the performance, but simply because it was memorable for me. I don’t know what I had expected going into the concert, but it was definitely not such intensity and vivacity.
The movement had both slow, lamenting moments and quick, chaotic ones, and was at times sinister and sorrowful while leaping and hopeful at others. The back and forth between the viola and the second violin and between the cello and the first violin brought to mind the idea of a battle. I tend to make notes in my program when at concerts, and I will admit, the first thing I have written next to this movement is “omg.” (Please note: I detest the use of AIM-speak).
iO played two other selections on Sunday: Quartet in F Major by French composer Maurice Ravel and Piano Quintet in F Minor, from opus 34b, by Johannes Brahms, accompanied by Cornell pianist Miri Yampolsky. The Ravel was both a joyful and a technical piece, involving a lot of intricate, rhythmic string-plucking, especially from the cello, and a soaring melody, sometimes on viola, sometimes in unison. The melody, which held through all four movements while simultaneously undergoing constant change and modulation, was based on an ascending major scale, and at times felt reminiscent of both Spanish and Asian influences.
The final piece, the Brahms, began with the melody in the piano with the quartet accompanying, and morphed into a gentle and then a full-fledged battle between the pianist and the quartet, gaining in intensity throughout to become a rather astonishing display of the quartet’s ability. The balance with the piano was generally good, although not as completely on-point as the quartet itself — understandable since they probably only had a few days to rehearse together.
Overall, this was a fantastic concert. Granted, I didn’t see much of the modernity that iO looks to blend with the classic, unless you count the cellist’s highly spiky haircut, but, being a lover of classical genius, I wasn’t too upset. My hat is off and my hands are together for the iO String Quartet.