Haydn: String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, H.III: 38 (The Joke)
Adams: Second Quartet
Dvorak: String Quartet No. 11 in C Major, Op. 61
After one year of absence, last Friday I finally made it back to my old home turf of Washington, DC for a long weekend of catching up with old friends, visiting free museums, eating and drinking at favorite hang-outs and, last but not least, attending a chamber music concert at the Library of Congress' cozy and acoustically blessed Coolidge Auditorium, where I spent many enchanted evenings when I conveniently lived in its backyard.
As luck would have it, on Friday the renowned St. Lawrence String Quartet was there performing a set that included, among other goodies, the DC premiere of John Adams' Second Quartet, after first having performed the world premiere of it the weekend before at their home of Stanford University to celebrate their 25th birthday. That being said, the unstoppable ensemble is just as keen to handle more traditional composers such as Haydn, with his respectable yet whimsical Op. 33, and Dvorak, with his endlessly melodic Op. 61.
The program was in fact so appealing that my friend Jennifer and I did not even mind the rain that was mercilessly pouring on us during our short walks sans umbrellas from her place to the Jefferson Building and back.
Never mind the grim weather, the Coolidge Auditorium was packed and the audience more than ready for the entertaining light-heartedness of Haydn's "Joke". Not one to waste time with flashy and unnecessary effects, the ingenious composer instead keeps the mood joyful and the writing complex all the way to the comically suspenseful ending. The musicians played with detailed precision while discreetly emphasizing all the unexpected twists and turns of the clever work, eventually prompting a couple of hearty rounds of applause, and more than a few chuckles, from the delighted audience. There is no doubt about it, Papa was a jokester too.
If Haydn's opening act was fun and gratifying, the real highlight of the evening for me was John Adams' latest quartet with the man himself in attendance to introduce it. After jokingly pointing out that he always felt at home on that particular stage - Coolidge being his middle name - he added that he could not have found better partners-in-chamber-music than his long-time collaborators and friends of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, who had already premiered his first quartet at that same location in 2009. We quickly realized that those were not empty words as we were listening to their handling of the Beethoven-inspired but definitely Adams-created tumultuous roller-coaster, whose immediately noticeable feature was its insistent, unstoppable pulse, which by the way did not prevent an attractive tapestry of sounds from being crafted around it. The second movement of the two had a wider range, from resolutely minimalist to downright lyrical, but never completely released the tension even during the quieter moments, which resulted in a truly exciting virtuosic feast.
After Adams' brazenly modern quartet, we went back to the Viennese Classical style with Dvorak's Op. 61. This is a nice big quartet that continuously overflows with colorful melodies, upbeat rhythms and an overall happy mood. The St. Lawrence String Quartet performed it with assurance, warmth and brio.
Our genuinely enthusiastic ovation earned us a last Haydn treat for the road with a serenely beautiful slow movement of one of his Op. 20 works. Then it was back out in the dark, cold and wet reality, with nevertheless a totally psyched up state of mind about the concert that had just ended and the weekend that had just started.