Fine Arts Quartet Meets Russian Accordionist

The headliner Russian work was fun, but the Quartet may have been best in a traditional work by Haydn.

By - Nov 10th, 2014 04:08 pm
Maria Vlasova

Maria Vlasova

The Fine Arts Quartet, an internationally-renowned string quartet in residence at the UW-Milwaukee, played to a near-capacity audience at the Zelazo Center Sunday afternoon. The audience included many members of the American Musicological Society visiting for their annual convention, held in Milwaukee this year. FAQ violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, cellist Robert Cohen and violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez were joined by Russian accordion virtuoso, Maria Vlasova.

Vlasova was featured in Efrem Podgaits’ “Ex Animo”, opus 184 – a quintet for string quartet and bayan. This work was commissioned by the FAQ in 2002. Evans admitted the quartet has not had the opportunity to program it since. Vlasova played a piano accordion instead of bayan, which might have sounded a deeper bass in one section of the work.

The one-movement work moves through sections that exploit the texture of accordion and strings in different ways. Primary motifs were built upon rapid bursts of sound from the accordion, rather than exploiting its harmonic multi-layer timbre. In one segment, single dramatic bursts from Vlasova triggered alternate responses from cello, then second violin – building in energy until the entire quartet joined in response and the ensemble segued into a cheerful Russian dance. In other segments, the accordion played soft extended chords in support of the quartet’s developing the theme.

Remarkably, the breathy pulses from the accordion were sometimes matched by the strings. Warped sighs from Vlasova were echoed by Cohen’s cello. Etherial atmospheric sounds fit for late October also appeared in each. Transitions occurred organically. Slower sections increased in energy until, unable to contain the impulse, the music transformed into traditional Russian dance, an undisciplined jazz sequence or even a traffic scene reminiscent of Gershwin’s images of Paris.

Podgaits, a Russian composer born in 1949, has composed more than 240 works in different genres (13 operas, 4 musicals, a ballet, and a number of pieces for symphony and chamber orchestra, choir and solo singers as well as music for cinema and theatre). This work was thoroughly creative and entertaining – contemporary, but very approachable. I’d like to hear more of his repertory. Vlasova demonstrated complete mastery of her accordion, fitting well into the ensemble with impeccable timing and well- matched dynamics.

The FAQ also performed the Philip Glass quartet, String Quartet No 2, “Company,” which is minimalist in both form and length, perhaps increasing its appeal to a wider audience. The four short movements of slightly more than two minutes each explored serial repetition, but variations developed far more rapidly than in a longer work and new ideas emerged in each section.

For the first movement, players played a repetitive short motif, each at a different pace. Evan’s drawn out notes over the pulsing energy of the others knit the section together. The pace quickened for the second movement with additional energy coming from lighter and heavier dynamics. In the third movement, the two violins sang a simple phrase. Cello and viola supported them in a much lower range. The pace of the group quickened, driving ahead. In the final movement, a rapid, but quiet pulse in the cello and viola set the pace. Each movement explored ideas, briefly expanded upon the idea with increasing volume, pacing or joining of forces, then faded to a close – ending several measures before one might expect. The result presented a delightful set of matched miniatures.  As Cohen pointed out when introducing the work, “the relaxing atmosphere casts a wonderful spell.”

Efrem Podgaits.

Efrem Podgaits.

The concert opened with Joseph Haydn’s late work, the String Quartet No 66 in G major, Opus 77, No 1. This familiar work is a perfect fit for the Fine Arts Quartet. They played it with a relaxed attitude that masked how well they have mastered the dynamics – sharing a precise interpretation of the work. They treated the beautiful second movement with loving care and sailed through the presto minuetto – a scherzo in all but name. The pace of the dancing finale would have challenged any other group. The pace is set by his colleagues at the start and challenges Evans who is to play three times as fast. Evans fiddled his way through the Hungarian style dance melody in complete control of every note.

Despite the mastery the FAQ demonstrated with new works by Podgaits and Glass, the Haydn quartet was the highlight of the concert. The Fine Arts Quartet owns the Classical-era repertory. I expect they have played this quartet many times. I doubt they have ever played it better.

The Quartet will next perform on February 1, 2015 at 3:00 P.M. at the Zelazo Center (2419 E. Kenwood Blvd) on the UW-Milwaukee campus.  Guest artists, Luis Magalhaes and Nina Schumann will play a work for two pianos by John Adams and join the quartet for Grande Simphonie Concertante for Two Pianos and String Quartet by Jan Ladislav Dussek. The concert will open with a Mozart quartet.

The concert will be preceded by a pre-talk at 2:00 P.M. Tickets may be purchased on-line at the Peck School of the Arts website or at the box office at (414) 229-4308. Additional program details may be found at the Friends of the Fine Arts Quartet website.   Tickets are a bargain $10. Parking is available in the Zelazo Center lot, to the south of the building, and in the Union parking garage across Kenwood Boulevard. Parking is free on Sundays only.

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