Dallas — The Dallas Chamber Music Society opened its new season at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium. The group was the Chiara String Quartet, made up of four young players. They are currently in residence at the School of Music in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Previously, they were in residence at Harvard University. The group's members are violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver.
They are best known for playing from memory, without the assistance of printed music, even in the longest and most challenging works. They came to wider notice when they achieved the almost incredible feat of playing all of the Bartók quartets from memory.
The program on Monday was diverse. They began with Benjamin Britten's delightful Three Divertimenti. Next came two works written in the last two years of the composer’s lives: Schubert's Rosamunde Quartet in A minor, D. 804, and Beethoven's String Quartet in E-flat major Quartet, Op. 127. (They only used music for the Schubert, which is probably a new piece in their repertoire.)
Britten’s three character pieces, unrelated to each other musically, were written when he was his 20s and they give a hint of the magnificent composer he would become. The harmonies are definitely 20th century as are some of the glissandi and other musical swoops. There are traces of Bartók and Stravinsky, but Britten’s distinctive voice is present, if nascent.
The quartet gave Britten’s short pieces a spirited performance. The last movement, “Burlesque,” it the most interesting with some original effects, such as the violist holding his instrument like a banjo and strumming away.
Schubert’s magnificent quartet was written near the end of his difficult and short life, a death most likely brought on by either syphilis or poisoning by mercury, which was a common “cure” for the disease at the time. He was dead just a few years later.
The entire performance felt like it was on the slow side, but certainly within the range of acceptable tempi.
First off, let me state that the quartet played with marvelous unity and delivered many memorable moments. The soft playing was frequently exquisite.
However, much of Schubert’s quartet was overplayed, creating too many very loud moments. For example, in the entire first movement, Schubert only writes one fortissimo, and it comes at the high point of the development. The impact the composer intended at this spot became just another loud passage.
Schubert follows this pattern in all four movements, and the same dynamic overload dulled the impact.
Schubert’s quartet is a work that feels long, although it only lasts about 30 minutes. It felt longer because the Chiara String Quartet took every single repeat—and there are quite a few of them. These repeats are clearly marked in the score, so it is understandable that they took them. However, to make them successful, the performers must do something different with the material the second time through, maybe revealing another aspect or voicing. There was no discernable difference in the repeated music so, especially in the Menuetto and Trio, the piece felt repetitious.
Beethoven fared much better, in that the loud playing is more excusable. Like the Schubert, this is one of Beethoven’s late quartets. He would be dead in two years, and the music is quite strangely passionate. These late quartets were not understood at the time and called indecipherable and bizarre. However, as time went on, their magnificence slowly revealed itself and these quartets inspired composers such as Mahler and Wagner.
In the second movement, we finally got to hear Beaver’s superb cello in some solo passages. Up until then, he was exactly at the right dynamic required in a musically self-effacing manner. When Beethoven asks the cello to soar, Beaver rose up out of the context, played his music in a thrilling manner and then vanished back in to the sonic soup when his passage ended. It is regrettable that there wasn’t more music on the program that gave the cello some real prominence.
An aside: Beethoven’s quartet is already a lengthy work but the composer actually wanted to make it monumental by composing two more movements for it.
The name of the quartet is a bit mysterious. According to some research, it is of Italian origin and means bright and clear. It is also the name of a church in Rome, Santa Chiara, named after Saint Chiara (Clare) of Assisi, a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi and the founder of the Order of Saint Clare (refered to these days as Poor Clares because of their vow of poverty). In a bizarre move, Pope Pius XII named her the patron saint of television, because her visions appeared on a wall of her room.
What all this has to do with a bright young string quartet remains to be explained.
Another oddity of Monday’s program is that the quartet is well-known for commissioning new works, but none of them were on the program.
Something of interest: Beaver, who did his undergraduate work at Houston’s Rice University, made some non-musical headlines in 2010, when he had a dispute with United Airlines, as reported in a piece in the New York Post on July 5, 2010, written by Jeremy Oldham.
Beaver had a coach ticket for himself and another coach ticket for his valuable cello. This is how he has to travel with the cello if he doesn’t want to trust it to baggage handlers. Thus, the instrument even has its own frequent flyer account.
As he was boarding, the gate agent of the airline said that the cello was too big to fit in a coach seat (although it did so frequently). The only solution offered was to buy two first class tickets: one for him and the other for the cello. This upped the cost from $229 to $1,052 each, wiping out most of the fee for his next performances.
Take a moment to think: Whom have you had to sit next to in coach? Oftentimes, a cello would be welcome.