Dallas — “Where do all these brilliant young string quartets come from?” This question resounded in the lobby of SMU’s Caruth Auditorium on Monday evening during the intermission of a performance by the Dover String Quartet. Presented by Dallas Chamber Music Society, this quartet certainly is worthy of that query.
One answer is that forming a string quartet is one way for some exceptional players to get some work. Orchestral seats are nearly impossible to obtain, what with hundreds of highly qualified applicants for every opening (even in the back of the second violin section). Solo recitals are as dead as the dodo and concerto gigs go to the very few, who either have winning-the-lottery luck or incredibly influential friends and a properly placed promoter.
However, four exceptional players can form a string quartet and hit the competition circuit. If you can procure a plethora of prestigious prizes you can then proceed to present performances around the country for the next decade. Such is the story of the Dover Quartet. At the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, one of the most prestigious of the bunch, they took first prize and then won all three special prizes. It was, in the words of their biographical blurb, “a clean sweep.” They have a collection of first prizes from other such events. Hearing them on Monday evening, you would be hard pressed to disagree with all the judges.
The four virtuosi are young, fresh faced and attractive. It is worth mentioning their attire because it presented a modern take on standard concert dress. The men—violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee and cellist Camden Shaw—wore dark suits with the shirt open at the collar. Violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt wore a floor-length, shoulderless black dress, modestly secured by spaghetti straps. However, it had a subtle silvery sheen to it that added a touch of dressy elegance and elevated it above the usual “concert black” without detracting from the dark suits around her. This attention to detail in how they presented themselves was a harbinger of the musical precision to come.
They played three very different quartets representing three musical styles and eras. They opened with Dvořák’s oft-played and much-loved “American” string quartet and launched into Alban Berg’s emotional onslaught of atonal chromaticism and passion with his String Quartet No. 3. They ended with a quartet from the start of Beethoven’s so-called “middle period,” his String Quartet No. 7, Op. 59, No. 1.
The first notes we heard all evening, in the opening of the Dvořák, were played by violist Pajaro-van de Stadt. What an astonishing sound she produced! It was not a surprise to learn that her résumé includes studies with violist Michael Klotz, whose rich and cello-like sound is legendary. In some ways it was unfortunate we heard her first and by herself. Even though first violin Link, second violin Lee and cellist Shaw are her equal and their balance as an ensemble was superb, your ear could not help but be drawn to her remarkable sound for the remainder of the concert.
All of their playing on Monday evening was clean, precise, and decisive: full of nuance in both tempo and dynamic contrast. They even enjoyed making music for us (something sadly missing from many performances these days). As exact as it was, there was nothing academic in their playing. The music flashed from folk-like simplicity to introspective pathos and hot passionate outpourings. Indeed, if there is a criticism, it is that they sometimes overplayed the big moments in works written when the historical norm for fortissimo was more restrained. This was the case in the Beethoven, where the loudest moments easily rivaled those in the much more explosive Berg (written a century later). That common complaint notwithstanding, each of the three pieces was approached quite differently. Each composer’s individual style was carefully respected.
A number of brilliant string quartets play ferociously for a decade or so, until all (or some) are established artists, and then go their separate ways. Let us hope that the Dover foursome will stay together into maturity, following the example of the long-lived quartets of yesteryear, such as the Amadeus Quartet, who went 40 years without a personnel change.