Friday, December 19, 2008

Harlem Quartet - Turina, Piston, Strayhorn & Schubert - 12/18/08

Turina: La oración del torero
Piston: String Quartet No 3
Strayhorn: Take the “A” Train (arranged by Paul Chihara)
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D 956 - Carter Brey

Yesterday evening the Library of Congress offered his traditional Stradivari Anniversary Concert to mark the 271th anniversary of the unequalled violin maker's death, and the lucky borrowers of some prized pieces from the Library's Cremonese collection were the young and feisty musicians of the Harlem String Quartet, who were joined by special guest New York Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey, who played his own cello, for Schubert's quintet. The quartet is comprised of first place laureates of the Sphinx competition, and they proved more than worthy of the prestigious instruments they were playing on for that special occasion. The raw talent they displayed and the wide musical range they performed earned them loud, occasionally very loud, but well-deserved applause from the packed auditorium.

The first three pieces were contemporary and unknown to me, but they turned out to be very nice surprises. Joaqín Turina's oración followed a toreador's day at the office, so to speak. From getting ready for the ring to the actual corrida followed by the quiet ending, it smartly combined Andalusian Gypsy music and French impressionism and was fun to listen to.
Next was the late Walter Piston’s third string quartet, all restrained harmony and subtle balance. It was certainly pleasant enough, even if nothing in it particularly stood out.
One of Duke Ellington’s signature tunes and the official song of New York City, the infectiously jazzy Take the “A” Train brought the house down by making full use of the decidedly versatile skills of the quartet’s musicians. Billy Strayhorn composed this rousing number in 1939 shortly after the Duke, upon the composer’s arrival in New York City, told him to “take the ‘A’ train” to his house. Arranged in the 1980s by the multi-faceted Paul Chihara, it is a short but immensely satisfying blend of classical music's subtle complexity and the sophisticated swing of Ellington’s big band sound.
After the intermission, Schubert’s String Quintet, which was to be his last chamber music work and a perennial favorite among connoisseurs, finally got me on familiar territory. The unusual addition of the second cello gives the piece a dark soulfulness that was beautifully highlighted last night and made this journey into his suffering mind even more poignant. After the long, melodic first movement, the beloved adagio in particular was delicately introspective, which made the few outbursts of anguish even more powerful. The five musicians treated us to a tightly homogeneous performance, even if the audience couldn't keep themselves from clapping between each movement and, in an extreme case of overflowing enthusiasm, even during a short pause in the second one.

We eventally, if reluctantly, made it to the end of the celebration, and are already looking forward to the next Stradivari anniversary. Same time, same place, more music.

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