Tuesday evening’s performance by the Wyeth String Quartet in the new Dallas City Performance Hall was a fine evening of chamber music in a fine new hall for chamber music, presented by the Dallas Chamber Symphony.
The Wyeth String Quartet is comprised of principals of the Fort Worth Symphony. New to the quartet this year is Leda Dawn Larsen on cello, as principal cellist Karen Basrak is listed in Fort Worth Symphony programs as being on leave of absence this year while she pursues an opportunity with the Chicago Symphony. Other members of the ensemble are Michael Shih and Adriana Voirin DeCosta, violins, and Laura Bruton, viola.
The quartet looked absolutely fabulous: Michael Shih wore all black, while the three women wore floor-length red dresses in different complementary styles with black lace shrugs over the top. The new hall looked and sounded great, too. The modern décor is striking, stark but not cold, yet the acoustics for chamber music are surprisingly warm, even without a shell on the stage.
They performed a program of the traditional—Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 2 in G Major Op. 18, No. 2; and Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A Major Op. 41, No. 3—and the contemporary—two short pieces by Arvo Pärt, “Psalom” and “Summa.”
Early Beethoven, such as the Opus 18, the first of Beethoven’s quartet cycles, seems especially well suited to the performance style of the Wyeth. If this fine ensemble is to be faulted at all, its fault is that although all the players are very skilled, Michael Shih and his 1710 Davis Stradivarius tend to dominate the ensemble with a big, bright, assertive sound. This works well in the Opus 18 Beethoven quartets, in which the first violin part is highly dominant anyway.
The fourth movement of the Beethoven, marked allegro molto—quasi Presto, was particularly dynamic and exciting. Beethoven himself described this movement as “unbuttoned,” which sets a rather high bar for feisty energy, but the quartet met it. Despite a cell phone interruption from the audience at a critical moment, the performers sustained vibrancy even through long phrases.
Violist Laura Bruton made some brief comments from the stage before the quartet performed the two short pieces by Estonian minimalist Arvo Pärt. She observed that “his music takes you to a place out of time.” And indeed, that proved to be the case, especially in the first piece, “Psalom.” Pärt’s work can look extremely simple, but that simplicity requires profound subtlety on the parts of the performers to induce an almost meditative state—indeed, a “place out of time.” The Wyeth Quartet’s attention to detail in “Psalom” created a whole that was simply breathtaking, a thing of ineffable beauty. This was definitely the high point of the evening. The faster-paced “Summa” is a bit more “traditionally minimalist,” but still meditative.
The quartet was mostly successful transitioning from the classical Beethoven and the contemporary Pärt to the Romantic Schumann—cellist Larson, particularly, adjusted her tone markedly to get a rich, full, lush 19th century sound here. The ensemble sounded marvelous for the most part, except, again, for a tendency for Michael Shih to dominate the group. This is more problematic in a Romantic quartet, in which the voices should be more balanced than in the early Beethoven. It is clear in listening to this ensemble that these are players who work with each other regularly. They are highly sensitive to quite subtle cues, which allows for highly musical playing. This was quite evident in the Schumann, particularly.
Although the crowd was regrettably sparse, it was enthusiastic, an enthusiasm rewarded by a delightful arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” as an encore.