Sunday, February 26, 2012

Juilliard String Quartet - Stravinsky, Janacek & Mozart - 02/25/12

Stravinsky: Three Pieces for String Quartet
Janacek: Quartet No 1 for Strings, “Kreutzer Sonata”
Mozart: Quartet No 18 in A Major for Strings, K. 464

After three grand scale piano-centric concerts and a dazzling opera, I figured it was time to go back to the more intimate, but no less intense, pleasures of chamber music with the Juilliard String Quartet, one of the premier ensembles in that field for decades now, courtesy of The Peoples’ Symphony Concerts this weekend. The program featured the intriguing trio of Stravinsky, Janacek and Mozart, and the performance would take place in the Washington Irving High School, which would be a new venue for me. So last night I decided to brave the blustery cold (Wait! Was it a mini snow storm we got around 7 pm?!) and the Saturday night crowds for what could only be an evening of highly refined entertainment.
Located in the exclusive Gramercy Park neighborhood, the historic Washington Irving High School turned out to be an interesting building, which included Gothic-style architecture and colorful murals inside a rather inconspicuous exterior facade. The theater was kind of breath-taking in its own way too with its bright blue walls and slightly faded orange curtains straight out of the 1970s. But hey, if my eyes were a bit taken aback, there was no doubt that the Juilliard String Quartet were going to engage my ears and elevate my mind, so let it be music.

Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet could have easily been named, more accurately, Three Short Pieces for String Quartet, and that would still have been an understatement. However, regardless of their respective lengths, each of these works was packed with experimental elements as mysterious as appealing, especially to the layperson that I am. Within less the 10 minutes the remarkably sharp ensemble had impeccably moved from folksy to whimsical to spiritual without batting an eyelid, and had brought the whole captivated audience along with them as well.
Inspired by Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, itself inspired by Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata”, Janacek’s own “Kreutzer Sonata” is a disturbingly turbulent score. The composer allegedly wanted to convey the mental state of a “poor woman, tormented and run down” and he can rest assured that he has definitely succeeded beyond measure. Played with precision and vigor, the convoluted music contained all the free-flowing anguish and pent-up anger of somebody having a really, really bad day. This was actually something I could briefly relate to as the woman across the aisle was suddenly hit by an uncontrollable coughing fit, which prompted a well-meaning but distracting deluge of candy offerings, paper unwrappings and annoyed glares, until she finally had the good sense to get up and leave.
After our foray into iconoclasticism with Stravinsky and Janacek, a more traditional pièce de résistance was programmed in the form of Mozart’s ever-pleasing Quartet No 18 in A Major. Economical yet complex, this classic pays a heart-felt tribute to Haydn, to whom it was dedicated, proving that the prodigy pupil had assimilated the old master’s lessons so well that he couldn’t help but move on and way beyond the artistic expectations of his time. The less than perfect acoustics, which occasionally dulled the shininess of those wonderful strings, and the harsh lighting, which inexplicably stayed on during the whole performance, nevertheless did not manage to spoil the inspired playing coming from the stage. Striking just the right balance between robustness and gracefulness, The Juilliard String Quartet made the popular work sound fresh and delightful, as if we were hearing it for the first time.

Our hearty ovation did not go unheeded, and the quartet took us even further back in time with a brilliant little Bach number as a token of their appreciation, before we all headed back out in the still blustery cold, but without a single snow flake in sight.

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