Fort Worth — The Oct. 27 concert by the Baumer Quartet—the second concert of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth's 31st season—made for an afternoon full of challenges. The program featured Schubert and Beethoven bookending a couple of modern voices, all played by an extraordinarily talented and musically perceptive ensemble, the Baumer Quartet: Nathan Olson and Aaron Requiro on violin, John T. Posadas on viola and David Requiro on cello.
The series' Artistic Director, Gary Levinson, prefaced the performance with remarks that included the concert's dedication to Laurie Shulman's late husband, Bill. Laurie's preconcert talks ought to be front page stuff for any organization that is fortunate enough to feature them; had I not been detained by a prior engagement that prevented my arriving early, my impressions of Saturday's concert would no doubt have been much better informed.
The Baumer Quartet—whose name is an inside joke for Wes Anderson fans—is an incredibly (and I use the word advisedly) cohesive group whose precise ensemble skills belie their getting together more or less on an as-needed basis.
On this program, they led off with Franz Schubert's Quartettsatz (D 703), a freestanding movement probably meant to function as part of a never-completed multimovement string quartet proper. One of this work's most imposing challenges is to explain how it's put together, but a detailed discussion is, as scholars say, "beyond the scope of this paper." However, it's not much of a stretch to say that, compared to your average string quartet movement, this thing is a mess.
The first theme is too short. There are three—count 'em! Three—second themes; and apart from a couple of reference points, nothing is in the right key. Members of the Baumer could probably explain this mess a lot better than I can, but the near-capacity crowd in the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was glad that they chose to play the work instead of to explain it. An expert rendition of an uncharacteristically compact Schubert movement, their performance featured a perfect tempo—the group took the composer's Allegro assai seriously, but they didn't overdo it—and perfect intonation throughout. In this tangle of keys and themes, both tempo and intonation are serious challenges.
The concert's first half concluded with George Tsontakis's Third String Quartet (subtitled “Coraggio”). Over and above meeting this work's performance demands—from passages of delicacy and beauty to those that, without performers blessed with ESP, ought to be regarded as impossible—imagine the challenge of playing it with the composer sitting twenty feet away from you. Perhaps to confirm Levinson's remarks in the printed program that Tsontakis is a living composer, George (if I may) took the stage during the applause to share the well-deserved ovation. I wonder if he liked the performance better than the 1991 recording of the work by the American String Quartet; I did.
The second half of the program began with the last three of five movements of Erwin Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet, Schulhoff's testing of the string quartet medium to see if it suited him, which it did. Although performing only three may have been a time concession, I'd prefer to think the choice to give the audience only three stemmed either from a belief in the modularity of the Baroque dance suite (on which the work may be modelled) or that movements 1, 2, 3, and 5 all seem to be in C, while movement 4 is pretty clearly—-the final chord notwithstanding—in D.
Whatever the case, the Baumer's choice to play only movements three, four and five—marked Alla Czeca (molto allegro), Alla tango milonga (andante), and Alla tarantella (prestissimo con fuoco) of this work is inspired: those unfamiliar with Schulhoff—whose popularity may be on the rise in America, if for no other reason than that he wrote a surprisingly good cantata based on Marx's Communist Manifesto—were given a taste of music by a prolific Nazi-proscribed Czech-German composer, a guy with a penchant for satire who played ragtime piano in a bar in 1924 Berlin 'til all hours following the first performance of this five-movement work. The Five Pieces, and these three especially, are a perfect introduction to Schulhoff's works.
Ending the concert with Beethoven's Op. 59, no. 2 in E minor may also be considered inspired. In the wrong hands, though, maybe not so: cross-rhythms calculated to disorient, key relationships built to confuse--all seem calculated to thwart a decent performance. The Baumer Quartet negotiated the opening Allegro without issue, and the second movement's adagio was slow enough for the Quartet, and the audience as well, to savor every detail. The third movement's weird rhythmic orientation seems intent on laying waste to prior achievements, but the Baumer Quartet—by virtue of superior communication among its members—never let on that this rather fast Allegretto was anything more than a diversion from the killer finale.
The closing rondo, which stands as one of Beethoven's greatest movements for string quartet, was a perfect counterpart to the Schubert mess that opened the program: themes start in the wrong key, and they stay in the wrong key; modulations whizz by as if Beethoven were distracted, short of sleep, or just angry. This group, however, tore into it, accepted every challenge--including the late moments, when Beethoven's high-register writing for the two violins in parallel tenths requires perfect intonation--and gave its audience a rendition of Op. 59/2 that may well stand as the best anyone present will ever hear, live or recorded. I even heard, during the applause that followed, a voice yell "play the rondo again!"
As appropriate a sentiment as that was, it was overshadowed by behavior that should have been left outside; that is to say, the Chamber Music Society's instructions to the audience to stay off their cell phones during performances should have been taken seriously. No phones rang that I was aware of, but the phone screen's light is no less distracting in the context of a concert than it is in a movie theater. And if you must leave your chair during a performance in the Modern's auditorium, remember that the seats make a racket when you release them. One thing a 24-karat ensemble like the Baumer Quartet doesn't need is "ka-THUMP, ka-thump kathump-thump-thump-thump" during the performance. Does anyone?