Erwin Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet
Dan Welcher: Museon Polemos for String Octet
Aeolus & Aizuri Quartets
Lembit Beecher: These Memories may be true
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
Aeolus & Aizuri Quartets
Hearing Mendelssohn's famed Octet live has been a privilege too rare in all my years of concert going, but I do understand that it requires, well, eight musicians, which is not exactly a common combination. At last the opportunity presented itself again earlier this week thanks to the unstoppable Music Mondays series, which was generously featuring not one but two incredibly young and already much in demand string quartets. When it comes to glowing recommendations, one could hardly ask for more than the Graduate Resident String Quartet at the Juilliard School, the Aeolus Quartet, and the String Quartet-in-Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Aizuri Quartet. So I had no doubts that Mendelssohn's youthful miracle would get the expert treatment it deserves, and so would pretty much everything else, which was fortuitous because it looked like there were quite a few other delectable goodies in store as well.
So never mind the frigid temperatures that had fallen upon us, there was no stopping me and many other die-hard Music Mondays regulars from filling up the pretty Advent Lutheran Church for an evening of string-only music.
The concert opened with "Five Pieces for String Quartet" a fun and intriguing work by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who took us on a tongue-in-cheek tour of European Baroque dance music in five short movements. It all started with a drunken Viennese waltz that kept on throwing itself off, then we had an insistent, strongly rhythmical serenata, followed by a highly spirited, rowdy Czech dance tune. Next we moved to a sensual, slowly intoxicating tango and finally ended with a seemingly out of control, high speed tarantella. The Aeolus Quartet's performance had the right amount of energy and grittiness, emphasizing each movement's musical style while easily transitioning from one to the next for a smooth journey.
The following piece was performed by the two quartets together, although they often did it independently to emphasize a sharp Apollonian/Dionysian contrast. As described to us by the composer Dan Welcher, "Museon Polemos for String Octet" was originally commissioned by the Miró Quartet and the Shanghai Quartet for the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Welcher, however, did not write an octet directly inspired by the ground-breaking composition itself, but rather by the ballets Stravinsky was writing for in those days. The one nod to Rite of Spring was the famous pounding of "The Dance of the adolescents", as if to make sure nobody could miss it, and it was in fact perfectly integrated into the whole. The eternal rivalry between the intellect and the senses fiercely played out through a complex, convoluted, and engaging score performed by eight impeccably synchronized musicians, before ending on a quiet note with no clear resolution.
After intermission, the Aizuri Quartet came back alone for Lembit Beecher's "These Memories may be true", which is, according to the composer, who was also in attendance, a loving tribute to his grand-mother who was an immigrant from Estonia. Throughout the four movements, we got to enjoy lovely moments dedicated to old Estonian folk songs as well as more vigorous rhythms reserved for more personal themes such as the last ship she had apparently taken to come to America and the super hero status she held in her grand-son's mind. In the assured hands of the Aizuri Quartet's ladies, the trip down memory lane was touching without falling into easy sentimentalism, and it was fun too, as the mighty grandmother and her incredible stories were being remembered through the innocent eyes of an impressionable child.
The last piece of the evening was Mendelssohn's invariably cheerful Octet, for which both quartets seamlessly joined forces and unquestionably conquered. The shamelessly infectious melodies unfolded unabated, vibrantly expressing the irrepressible joie de vivre of a 16-year-old genius who happily let his staggering creative juices freely flow and came up with a true masterpiece. The playing was uniformly balanced and focused, allowing the work's brilliance to gloriously explode in countless colors and liberally dispense some much needed bright sunshine on this bitterly cold winter night. And that felt really good while it lasted.