February 13, 2012

Spirited Strings at Bailey Hall

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Martha Wydysh ’14 recalls a rousing performance by the Juilliard String Quartet last Friday.

After a bout of bad luck surrounding the Juilliard String Quartet’s first violinist position, it appears former Cornell violin professor Joseph Lin has filled the chair while restoring stability to the ensemble. Before Lin’s appointment, first violinist Robert Mann held tenure from 1946 to 1997, making him a true veteran of the quartet. Following his retirement, the group filled his seat twice within a short period. It comes with great pride to Cornell that Lin does not seem to be going anywhere, as proven by a wonderful performance at Bailey Hall last Friday evening.

Thus far, Lin’s transition into the Juilliard String Quartet has proven to be a welcoming experience. However, first violin is without a doubt the most difficult position to fill with a newcomer. By accepting this duty, Lin has taken on the responsibilities of both musician and leader. The first violinist must be able to play virtuosic works and also keep the group together while knowing when to fall back and let the other players shine. A traditional problem in chamber music groups can be the ego of the first violinist, as tensions between players can lead to a dearth of camaraderie. Lin’s renowned international solo career background would normally suggest his domineering role in the group. Thankfully, it seems Lin fits in perfectly with his fellow colleagues, putting any ego that came with his two studio albums aside. His knack for interpretation is apparently on the same level as the other three musicians, yielding to a balanced, well-adjusted sound. Sadly, whereas Lin brought life to the quartet, the program chosen by the group flat-lined with the audience.

Opening with the easygoing Haydn piece Quartet in G major (Op. 54, No. 1), the quartet sparked some energy in the crowd. Always charming and bright, Haydn’s accessibility and familiarity demonstrated to the nearly full auditorium that the string quartet has already established a solid sense of cohesiveness. Their communication proved extremely developed for the amount of time they have played together. The first movement took on a refreshing zeal, with Lin moving buoyantly on his chair. The quartet cultivated a very controlled sound, which continued through the second movement and the brief, spirited third. Dynamics were observed to their extremes, as they should be in playing Haydn.

Before beginning Carter’s Quartet No. 5, written in 1995, Joel Krosnik took a very necessary moment to prepare the audience for the 12-movement cacophony they were about to hear. In his closing statement, he posed: “Don’t try to figure [Carter] out, he’ll come to you.” Regrettably, the piece did not “come” to me, although I may have been trying too hard to grasp onto any sense of melodic stability, which was what this modern piece lacked completely. Beginning with two dissonant chords in the first violin part, the piece goes on to showcase each instrument individually with various jarring effects. A jumble of messy, clunky pizzicato and swarming artificial harmonics built up into an extremely unsettling effect. The percussive qualities of the music were augmented by incessant coughing from the audience (it is that time of year), and an impromptu, somewhat awkward dropping of score by second violinist Copes in the middle of the performance.

The transitions between movements were impossible to discern amongst Carter’s erratic metric modulations. The piece typically involves conversations by each instrument in the interludes that recur in later movements. The flightiness of the first violin and the bravura of the viola become the only concrete motifs onto which the ear can hold. The quartet is supposed to represent two simultaneous creative processes. In performance, the musicians appear to be first trying out and rehearsing musical ideas (in the introduction and interludes), and then playing them (in the even-numbered movements), thus giving an unpolished and tremulous sound to the music. At the same time, the sketches mirror the composer’s compositional process as he worked out small sections, not writing linearly from beginning to end, but by assembling small phrases together and smoothing them out. Although this made for an extremely imperceptible, even unpalatable, listening experience, the exacted way the musicians handled the unpredictability of the piece was admirable. The group resorted to body language to keep in close contact. Bow hairs were broken, and elbow grease was spent.

Following intermission, the quartet brought the audience back to basics with Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat major (op. 130) with Grosse Fuge. While it takes great stamina to play this grand quartet, its duration of an hour was possibly too extensive for listeners, especially following the Carter piece. Beethoven’s later quartets all include more than the typical four-movement structure of a string quartet, this particular one boasting six. The performers explored the emotional depths of the brooding, sonata form, first movement, having adeptly captured the richness of Beethoven. They maintained their firm grasp of the composer in the interplay of the second movement by maintaining stark contrasts in dynamics. The following two movements, short and straightforward, were played with a transparent delicateness, perhaps as to save energy. The ensemble was at its most robust in the sixteen minute, sumptuous final movement. The weight of the entire work is thrown into this gargantuan fugal finale, and the quartet expertly maintained sturdiness in its drawn-out development. An encore was not necessary after the triumphant, closing up-bow that ended the evening.

Original Author: Martha Wydysh