Vibrant young strings
The Arcas Quartet brought elegant phrasing, solid ensemble, and obvious enthusiasm for chamber music to the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee Sunday night. A younger-than-usual audience for classical music enjoyed the performance (and missed the tragic, final Brewers game) in the beautiful and acoustically warm hall. The Arcas comprises Ilana Setapen, associate concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony, and Margot Schwartz on violins; violist Jenny Snyder Kozoroz; and cellist Peter J. Thomas.
Schwartz took a turn at first violin in Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 49. Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1938, just after the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. But the quartet is completely different in tone from the terror and tragedy of those monumental works. It begins softly, as if shrouded in fog, then warms into lyrical melodies in the second movement, shaded and colored subtly within a simple, open structure. The short movements quickly build into a heated debate, which is just as quickly resolved as the voices agree to disagree. The musicians played with passion, subtlety and joy.
The Arcas premiered Joel Kenneth Boyd’s String Quartet No. 1 (“Abigail’s Rose”). Boyd based it on William Billings‘ early American anthem, I am the Rose of Sharon and was inspired by the life and letters of Abigail Adams. Setapan articulated the theme with power and brilliance. The piece shifted between dissonant and melodic passages, with fugal repetition of the theme weaving through a tonal wilderness in what the composer calls “modern extended tonality.” There were moments of great beauty, as in a bold cello solo, answered by the second violin, and of clarity and quiet, when the music resolved into the simplest of early music harmonies and thinned to almost nothing. Boyd used the full range of the instruments, from a shrieking dissonant climax at the top of the violin fingerboard to a soulful, dark reprise at the bottom of the cello.
A lush cello melody introduced Beethoven‘s Quartet Op. 59, No. 1 in F Major (“Rasumovsky”). The players brought a lively tempo and nuanced phrasing to the first movement. They balanced the four lines perfectly as they took pianissimos to the edge of audibility. They rose together in subtle swells, and they maintained clarity through dense fugal passages, sudden shifts, and gradual crescendos. The feeling was light and playful as melodies passed from solo to duet, cleared to a few simple notes, gently came to a pause, then rose in sudden crescendo to a dramatic finishing flourish.
The final movement brings back sweet melodies in the cello, and flitting strains from earlier movements appear suddenly; emotions shift constantly. Now dark, now playful, the quartet races toward illusory climaxes that fade and restart. The musicians played now with elegant understatement and then with fiery passion. Setapan, playing first, communicated each swell, each shared breath. They navigated a flipped version of the first movement and descended in thirds, as if searching for a key. They held back, surged and fell to nothing, then rose together for the final crescendo.
Somehow this group of young musicians, with their passion and communication, their elegant and joyful playing, and their support for new compositions, brings a sense of hope. I look forward to hearing their influence in the Milwaukee Symphony and beyond for many years to come.