Plenty of Electricity

Fine Arts Quartet excels in concert interrupted by campus police searching for electrical failure.

By - Jun 24th, 2014 09:57 am
Rachel Calin

Rachel Calin

In their third summer concert, the Fine Arts Quartet (violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez and cellist Robert Cohen) introduced new listening experiences from the most established of classical composers. The concert at the UW-Milwaukee Zelazo Center on Sunday evening opened with a fragment of Haydn’s last quartet – the incomplete String Quartet No 68. With the help of two guests, pianist Alon Goldstein and string bass player Rachel Calin, the quartet offered a rarely played chamber transcription of Mozart’s popular 21st Piano Concerto. The concert closed with an ambitious quartet by a composer who rarely wrote chamber music – Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 2.

Haydn lived to age 77. Just six years before he died, his creative energies nearly spent, he wrote his String Quartet No 68 in D minor, Op 103. It has been suggested that he set aside writing first and last movements because of the challenge to create a wholly integrated work. But he did complete two short inner movements – a pleasant andante and a cheerful minuet. Although lacking the complexity and often clever surprises of other quartets, each stand as single ideas with substantial interest. The lovely andante theme was introduced on Evan’s violin and played with little variation other than changes of pace. The minuet featured a catchy off-beat theme. Strong accents marked the rhythm but would have interrupted a dance. The quartet performed these attractive movements with tightly coordinated ensemble playing.

Alon Goldstein

Alon Goldstein

The transcribed version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 in C major, K 467 opens with strings. The addition of a bass player (Calin) added depth to the sound of the chamber strings. Evans and Boico carried the themes on violins. The three lower registers – viola, cello and bass – often provided a basso continuo-like platform. Goldstein played with an effortless, light touch – slicing through trills – maintaining a light atmosphere, particularly because he was partnering with a smaller group. He offered a short cadenza he himself had written.

Conveying the beauty and charm of a Mozart piano concerto without winds or brass can be difficult. His 21st piano concerto, known by many as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto after its use in the 1967 art film, features exquisite dialogue between the piano and winds.

This transcription, written by Ignaz Lachner in the early 19th century, reduces the scope of the work by assigning the classic andante melody to the first violin alone, later sharing it with the piano. Evans began the andante slowly, drawing out the romantic beauty of the theme. Consolidating attention on the music worked – Mozart’s melody sparkled.

The Mozart concerto was interrupted just as the andante began by a piercing siren and flashing lights. The crowd moved slowly into the chilly air as four UWM police squads inspected the building, found an electrical system emitting smoke and called in building maintenance staff to address the issue. The break lasted about 20 minutes and a number of attendees left. The crowd that returned was even more appreciative of the work of the quartet – with an immediate standing ovation after the Mozart was completed.

The Tchaikovsky String Quartet No 2 in F major, Op 22 closed the concert. This second of the composer’s three string quartets is a sophisticated work, with both driving motifs and occasional memorable Tchaikovsky melodies.

The quartet opened with minor key, shimmering fragments creating an ethereal sound but little sense of where the quartet was leading. The themes of the first movement entered a bit later appearing both in first violin and viola. A captivating motif contained little melody but a rhythm that spun on occasion into furious bowing by one or several players culminating in a virtually buzzing first violin.

A second movement scherzo featured folk rhythms, a sprightly dance and a brief syncopated waltz. The third movement andante featured exchanges between Evans and Hernandez in themes both lovely and tinged with regret.

The finale featured a driving motif recalling the opening movement – particularly in a rhythm-driven fugue that flew through the players – gathering momentum as it was repeated.

In contrast to the other works, the Tchaikovsky Quartet called for rapid changes, independent entries, dramatic shifts in tone and virtuosic leadership by each player. As might be expected of the Fine Arts Quartet, they managed the work with a coordinated vision, a shared sense of the arc of the movements and an assured mastery of both andante and faster-paced sections.

The Fine Arts Quartet and Sunday’s guests will fly to New York this week to record a pair of transcribed Mozart piano concerto for a forthcoming CD.

The Summer Evenings of Music series concludes next Sunday, June 29th at 7:30 P.M. A pre-talk begins an hour earlier. The Fine Arts Quartet will be joined by two guests – violist Gil Sharon and cellist Alexander Hülshoff. Together they will play two sextets, by Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky (who was inspired by travels to Italy in 1890). Violist Gil Sharon will join the quartet in Mozart’s String Quintet in C minor, K406/516b.

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