Thursday, October 09, 2008

Become a DaedHaed

Another one of those award-winning young string quartets is coming to town – and there are many out there, these days, all worth checking out. Who knows which ones will survive the free-market arts economy to become one of that elite group of Great American Quartets that unfortunately then become a little too expensive for many chamber music presenters around the country.

In that sense, this is a good season for Market Square Concerts whose series will wrap up in April with an appearance by the legendary Guarneri Quartet in what is one of the very last concerts they’ll give on their final tour.

It’s also a great weekend, right now, because the Guarneri Quartet will be playing Friday night at the new home of the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster, playing the Dvořák “American” Quartet on their program.

And then Saturday night, Market Square Concerts’ new season opens with a group that last year won the Guarneri Quartet Award from Chamber Music America, the Daedalus Quartet. Their program will include Haydn’s C Major Quartet, Op. 20 No. 2 (one of the set called the “Sun” Quartets), the 4th Quartet by Bruce Adolphe, written in 1992 with the evocative title “Whispers of Mortality,” and then Beethoven’s F Minor Quartet, Op. 95, nicknamed the “Serioso” which will be prefaced by another of Bruce Adolphe’s insightful and humorous presentations.

A few seasons ago, Adolphe (who is the companion of one of the most famous parrots in classical music, Polly Rhythm) did a similar presentation with the first movement of Mozart’s dramatic G Minor Piano Quartet which he ingeniously translated phrase-by-phrase into a murder trial. The opening theme became the prosecutor’s “You... are... a murderer!” followed by the damsel’s distressed disavowal. At one point in the proceedings a cell-phone in the audience went off, playing out its ring-tone of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” If I’d been quick enough, I would’ve shouted out from the balcony “Beethoven Objects!” to the opening notes of his 5th Symphony...

So now it’s Beethoven’s turn. What Adolphe has in store for Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet, I have no idea – he calls it a “diagnosis” of Tourette Syndrome in Music – hey! – and the season is appropriately sponsored by Capital Blue Cross.

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The Daedalus Quartet formed in the year 2000. Violinists Kyu-Young and Min-Young Kim, brother and sister, grew up on Long Island with cellist Raman Ramakrishnan and met violist Jessica Thompson at the Marlboro Music Festival and decided to form a quartet. The next year, they won one of the most coveted prizes in the Chamber Music World, the Banff International String Quartet Competition. Beginning in the fall of 2005, they spent two seasons as the resident quartet for Chamber Music Society II, which led to numerous performances at Lincoln Center. Their first CD was released in 2006 by the Bridge label which includes the quartets by Sibelius and Ravel and Stravinsky’s 3 Pieces for String Quartet. Last year, they won the Guarneri Quartet Award from Chamber Music America.

In and among all these events, I had a chance to hear them at the 2005 Next Generation Festival where they appeared on the second week of the series organized by Awadagin Pratt for a program held at Susquehanna University’s Stretansky Hall. I’ll just quote from the review I’d posted at the time on my other blog.

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Awadagin Pratt always manages to bring with him some incredible performers, usually including a new string quartet. I had never heard of the Deadalus Quartet before which is the sort of thing that makes you think, “well, this could be one of several things, couldn’t it?” There are so many young quartets out there and so few opportunities to hear them, it’s easy to be dismissive. I’ve heard a few groups that impress as likely to become this generations answer to great ensembles of the past, like the Juilliard, the Guarneri, the Cleveland and the Emerson Quartets. I’ve been especially impressed by the Ying, the St. Lawrence and the Pacifica Quartets all of which have performed live in the area on several occasions courtesy of Market Square Concerts and Gretna Music. Add to that list, now, the Daedalus Quartet.

First of all, Sibelius’ lone string quartet alternates between the spare style of what would become his 4th Symphony and the more traditional style of his recently finished 3rd. The only way I’ve ever heard it was through the Juilliard Quartet’s recording. With nothing to compare it to, I just figured the pieces wasn’t all that interesting [to me] and I even wondered why this younger group had programmed it. I know Awadagin loves Sibelius, and so do I – his symphonies and tone poems, the violin concerto are all wonderful works – so I figured this going to be the discovery-of-the-evening. As it turned out, on several levels.

By the second measure of the Daedalus’ performance, I knew I was going to be rethinking this piece. Within a minute I was thinking “okay, you’ve sold me on this piece, I’m going to love it!” But I kept thinking, “why didn’t the Juilliard impress me the same way?” You’d think it’s the same piece of music, but in the hands of the Daedalus it hit me squarely as something completely different. Maybe the Juilliard approach caters more to the asutere side while the Daedalus play it with a mix of fire and guts and, when needed, a certain aloofness (but never dispassionate), the same kind of involvement that distinguishes a good performance from a great one. Not that the Juilliard were “phoning it in,” but their view of it didn’t hit me – in fact, it missed me by a mile. The Daedalus hit me between the ears and stayed there the entire performance.

There are passages where Sibelius’ trade-mark string-noodling, rolling by like quiet but often troubled waves, serve as a bed for a melodic fragment that ought to buuild. These noodlings are fine when played by a whole string sections where they create a texture, but my jaw dropped when I heard the violist begin one of these segments, where you could cleanly hear every note, only to have the others one by one join in, all playing in perfect tune and rhythm (no fudging) as you ride to the crest of the wave and then are thrown over the top into its resolution. The middle movement, however, is the miracle: this is a mixture of harmonic writing and meditation that gives the quartet its nickname: Sibelius scribbled over three hushed repeated chords the Latin phrase “voces intimae” but what Intimate Voices means remains an enigma. Did something happen to him at the moment he was writing those austere chords? Had he just received some bad news? Was there a sudden but maybe unmusical epiphany when, in the middle of something else, these chords, sounding so unexpected, came to him out of nowhere? There were so many details unheard before, I wouldn’t have minded if they’d played this movement again or, for that matter, the whole piece.

By the end, the audience in Stretansky Hall burst into applause like they were hearing a great performance of a beloved masterpiece... [The quartet has] been chosen to work with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for the next two seasons, I can now understand why: it would be worth a trip to New York just to hear them again. Consider me a DaedHaed!

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Well, this time you don’t have to drive to New York to hear them. They’ll be playing this Saturday night at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg at 8:00. I’m sure you’ll be able to pick up their recording of the Sibelius at the concert (probably not any boot-leg concert tapes, though) – most people would probably get it for the Ravel – but I’m also sure hearing their Beethoven “Serioso” will be an ear-opener as well.

By the way, I’d recently written about a chance to hear another quartet I first heard at the very first Next Generation Festival, before the Cypress Quartet was even a year old. That was almost 12 years ago and the performance I just heard of the Debussy Quartet which I blogged about here was another revelation, turning a work I never cared for into something riveting to listen to. I would also add them, now, to the list of young quartets I hope to hear a lot more from in the future. In fact, Ellen Hughes, the new director of Market Square Concerts and a long-time friend of Cypress, told me the quartet will be appearing during the NEXT season, perhaps in January of 2010 as they work out the dates, probably playing a work by Jennifer Higdon.

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