Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Caroline Shaw: Valencia
Missy Mazzoli: Death Valley Junction
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1
After an essentially forced downtime on the performance front, the music drought I had to endure was officially over last Monday evening. That’s when the Philadelphia-based Jasper Quartet and the reliably ambitious, not to mention wonderfully convenient, Music Mondays series provided me with the perfect opportunity to ease myself back into the slowly but surely opening 2018-2019 New York music season with an attractive mix of traditional and new string quartet music.
The program included timeless works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn book-ending recent pieces by two of the most exciting female composers today, namely Caroline Shaw, whose resolutely eclectic works regularly appear in a vast array of programs, and Missy Mazzoli, whose opera Breaking the Waves rocked the 2017 Prototype Festival. A lot of music lovers obviously felt as intrigued as I was, and the Advent Lutheran Church quickly got packed to the rafters.
It is hard to go wrong with Viennese master Ludwig van Beethoven in any circumstances, and his String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 was a very rewarding opening number indeed, starting with the civilized exchanges of the Allegro before moving on to the smoothness of the Adagio cantabile, which was followed by the spontaneous sparkles of the Scherzo. The Jasper Quartet seemed to enjoy themselves as much as we did as they skillfully and easily made their way through the piece.
After we fast-forwarded over two centuries, the energetic classicism of Beethoven’s quartet found a modern equivalent in Caroline Shaw’s short and unabashedly sunny Valencia, which spontaneously perked up our gray September evening with plenty of bright colors and zesty flavors.
Missy Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction was inspired by the California desert town of the same name, which is home to three people, a café, a hotel, and a fully functional opera house. The real star of the composition, however, is Marta Becket, the New York artist who, after a flat tire grounded her and her husband there in 1967, decided to stay and repair the crumbling opera house, eventually performing one-woman shows every week in it until her retirement in 2012 at age 87. Unsurprisingly, the musical evocation of this unusual story combines the harsh textures of the environment and the wild exuberance of the artistic endeavor, which were all expertly conveyed by the four musicians.
More exuberance, of the decidedly more polished kind this time, filled up the little church after intermission with Mendelssohn’s confident String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1, during which the string players engaged in a high-spirited conversation, before slowing down for the two more introspective, but still highly melodic, central movements. Things perked up again for the brilliant finale, which wrapped up the movement, the piece, and the performance with delightful fireworks.