The Fine Arts Quartet opens a new season

Ralph Evan, Efim Boico, Nicolo Eugelmi and Robert Cohen command music by Haydn, Shostakovich and Debussy.

By - Sep 11th, 2012 12:51 am
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Ralph Evans, Efim Boico, Robert Cohen, Nicolo Eugelmi. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Quartet website.

With no guests to distract attention, the Fine Arts Quartet concert provided an opportunity to appreciate UW-Milwaukee’s resident ensemble just for itself.  Cellist Robert Cohen, who formally joined earlier this year, radiates his pleasure with ensemble work and adds energy to the group, which also comprises violinist Ralph Evans, second violinist Efim Boico and violist Nicolò Eugelmi.

Precise, structured playing distinguishes the Fine Arts Quartet. Sunday, these qualities came through most obviously  in their interpretation of Haydn, but also were evident in more contemporary music, which required frequent changes in color, tempo and intensity.

The quartet seemed most at home with Haydn, who sprinkled surprises onto his well-structured Quartet Opus 77 No. 2. Precisely timed flourishes in the first movement were followed by a playful second movement with challenging rhythmic patterns. A contrasting andante introduced a sublime duet for Evans and Cohen. The variations then passed to the second violin, to a tender treatment by the cello and to a faster virtuoso pace on first violin. The finale fit the quartet well – a fast scamper to the finish showed the players to be safe at any speed.

The last two works, from more recent eras, had less of Haydn’s structured, Classical development and a greater emphasis on tempo, motifs and aesthetic impact.

Shostakovich wrote his first quartet within a year of his popular Fifth Symphony. The colors reflect the beauty Shostakovich could capture with dreamy, high pitched sequences. This Quartet No. 1, an exercise in spareness, has little of the high tension or political commentary of later works. Haydn presumed that any good passage deserved a repeat. Shostakovich rarely even lets a theme develop before quietly ending each movement, in abrupt and unexpected ways. The result was satisfying.

After an opening phrase that struggled to find its bearings, the first movement settled into the quietly dramatic style that marks the adagio movements typical of Shostakovich’s symphonies. In one section, Cohen’s cello harrumphed a rough backdrop as Evans’ violin sang high breathless passages. Impressions change in the second movement. Eugelmi introduced the second movement, a plaintive Russian folk song, on solo viola. The theme developed wistfully, reintroducing the contemporary sound but with little tension. The third movement introduced a low key but rapid scherzo over a droning accompaniment. A shimmering trio section, free of dissonance, linked to a brief reprise. The work ended with a bright, high-energy finale, of constant motion with few changes of pace right up to an abrupt ending.

Debussy, the father of contemporary music, brought new colors and free forms to his String Quartet, Opus 10, composed about the same time as Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The quartet is carefully assembled. A simple motif works its way through all movements. Debussy plays with the motif, demonstrating the variety of ways to inform it – variations of many colors and moods.

The first movement featured the three note motif, developed into a quasi-dance structure that swayed through expressive variations. Violist Eugelmi opened the second movement with a lush folk melody that spun through several delightful variations. Each player introduced a variation over a bed of plucked strings from the others. In the brightest variation, the entire quartet broke into a pizzicato treatment of the melody. The slow third movement featured a tender theme passed around the players and supported by choral harmonies from the others. Cellist Cohen opened the fourth movement with a shimmering theme that built in intensity, to fall back and build again.  The quartet shaped the ebb and flow to the music, as it constantly changed pacing, volume and intensity. The pacing reminded me of a small boat at sea, bobbing on deep waves set far apart.

In all, this was a “chamber” chamber-music concert. All three pieces began quietly and ended with little fanfare. No composer demanded orchestral proportions from the quartet. This was pleasant music for a sunny afternoon, with few fireworks. Well, maybe a sparkler or two.

The next Fine Arts Quartet program is set for 3 p.m. on Nov. 11. Program annotator Timothy Noonan will speak at 2 p.m.  Two 20th Century American composers,- Amy Beach and Bernard Herrmann, will be featured, along with Beethoven’s great last quartet, Opus 130. Clarinetist Michel Lethiec will join the FAQ for Herrmann’s Clarinet Quartet. Admission is free, but tickets are required, and all 2012-13 regular season concert tickets have been claimed. However, ticket holders tend to miss some of the concerts and seats are likely be available the afternoon of the concert. Click here for UWM’s ticket and seating policy or call the UWM box office, 414 229-4308. The concerts take place at the Helen Bader Concert Hall in UWM’s Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd.

Keep track of the Fine Arts Quartet and all of Milwaukee’s performing groups. Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s comprehensive, ever-growing guide to the 2012-13 season. Sponsored by the Florentine Opera.

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