Tom Strini
Fine Arts Quartet

Summer Evenings 2

UWM's Sunday-night music series continues without a hitch, even with Schubert as a last-minute sub for Tchaikovsky.

By - Jun 17th, 2013 01:53 am

Juan-Miguel Hernandez. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

Friday, the Fine Arts Quartet collectively decided not to play 14 selections from Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album. They didn’t like the arrangement of the work, which was originally for piano. So, what to pull out for the second of four Sunday Summer Evenings of Music concert? Something else that’s easy and light? Of course not. They went with Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14. You know: “Death and the Maiden.”

They’ve all played this staple of quartet repertoire many times, but it remains an intellectual, emotional and technical challenge. And violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico and cellist Robert Cohen are playing with guest violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez this summer. Safety-first emergency programming would have been forgivable.

As it turned out, no reason for concern. The four came together in a highly charged, well-controlled and nuanced reading of this weighty piece. They tuned in especially to a characteristic Schubert strategy for building drama, that of expanding the pitch parameters of a musical idea. He introduces a theme or even a chord progression within a middle range, then takes higher and lower notch by notch as he develops it. The challenge to the player lies in not making it sound merely higher and lower but bigger and more emphatic. The Fine Arts, turned up the volume and the intensity and the music took on more mass on its way to climactic moments. The perfect example of this came in the second theme of the first movement. At first, it sounds like a couple of choir boys sweetly harmonizing; before long, it turns into a fire alarm.

The rest of the evening stayed on the lighter, if occasionally wilder, side. In 1931, Shostakovich transcribed a polka from a ballet and an aria for an opera as his first ventures into the string quartet medium. They made a nice pair Sunday. Evans played the aria like a poignant Russian folk song, to Shostakovich’s straightforward accompaniment couched in the other three instruments. But Shostakovich saw fit to unmoor melody from harmony, and it was fascinating to hear the strands diverge unpredictably and find their way back to traditional relationships. The cartoonish polka uses the same trick but in a comic, pull-out-the-rug way. Many of Shostakovich’s scherzos are garish and bitterly ironic; at least in this performance, the polka sounded like untroubled comedy.

The players sounded unsettled in both intonation and dramatic intention in Turina’s La Oración del Torero, a fitful work that moves abruptly from dance motifs to declamatory music to cantabile. So many ideas pass through in so short a time that they’re hard to remember or sort out, but a recurring set of chords sliding down chromatically in dreamy quarter-note triplets was worth the price of admission.

Evans, Boico, Hernandez and Cohen knew exactly what they were about in four Vision Fugitives, arranged from Prokofiev’s piano original by Sergei Samsonov. Each miniature emits an aroma and disappears. The music sounds exactly like the titles: “Dolente,” minor-tinged chromatic line weaving through and clashing with linear counter-melody, with a middle section reeking of workaday monotony; “Ridiculosomente,” a dopey little melody with a twittering-machine accompaniment subject to rhythmic breakdowns; “Poetico,” a noodling ostinato winding around a sweet, modest melody; and “Feroce,” with driving momentum hanging up on trip-wire syncopations,  leavened somewhat by the unexpected 3/4 lilt in the middle section.

Prokofiev offered exuberant, outrageous, youthful musical humor. Haydn, in the Quartet in D, Opus 71 No. 2, gave us and the players the slyest, most sophisticated sort of good cheer. Haydn makes us believe, at the outset of each movement, that we will hear the usual sorts of forms, then crosses us up with the likes of the dazzling rethinking of the recapitulation in the first movement. Haydn develops simple ideas so abundantly and cleverly that I wonder if he wasn’t showing off as he tops surprise with surprise brilliance with more brilliance. The players took to it with gusto and deep understanding. They knew, for example, that the alleged Minuet is in fact a heavy-booted peasant dance, and they played it accordingly. Haydn had some fun writing this one, the Fine Arts Quartet had some fun playing it, and I had some fun hearing it.

This and all Fine Arts Quartet Summer Evenings of Music concerts were and will be given in the Zelazo Center of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where the FAQ is in residence. Remaining concerts: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 23 and June 30. For further details and tickets — they’re free this summer, but required, and advance reservations are advised — visit the Peck School of the Arts website.



Categories: Classical, Music

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