Amernet String Quartet
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Soluna Review: Phantasy Quartet

The Amernet String Quartet excels on works by Brits and Korngold at the Dallas Symphony's Soluna Festival.

published Thursday, May 14, 2015


Dallas — Here is an idea for the new Fast and Furious film, with fewer explosions: Follow classical music critics around for three solid weeks of concerts—at least one every night and many evenings have two or three concurrently. We have to move fast and write at a furious pace. This is not a complaint, mind you, just the reality in a city with such a vibrant concert scene that we can hardly keep up.

In addition to programming music that is rarely performed, the Soluna Festival is also using unusual venues. On May 10, it was the Dallas Contemporary, an art collective space in the Design District. It is a huge empty warehouse of a place with white painted walls and large paintings displayed with considerable space between them. There are also some sculptures and installations. All of it is interesting and creative. The place is certainly worth a regular visit.

The concert featured music that was as new as the art on the walls to many in attendance, although some of the composers are familiar old friends. The thread that tied them all together was their relationship to the USA.

The Englishman Nicholas Maw lived here from 1984 until the year of his death, 2009. Bernard Rands, also from the UK, lives in Boston, teaching at Harvard since 1975. The most familiar name on the program, also a Brit, was Benjamin Britten, who lived here from 1939 to 1942, at which point he and his life partner, Peter Pears, returned to England. The only non-Brit on the program was the Austrian Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He moved to Hollywood in 1934 and revolutionized the art of the film score.

The Amernet String Quartet was the anchor organization for this concert (as well as the May 15 concert). The quartet is made up of violinists Misha Vitenson and Marcia Littley, violist Michael Klotz and cellist Jason Calloway.

Vitenson is an aggressive violinist who generates a full sound and plays with laser focus, nearly perfect intonation and amazing accuracy. A natural born leader, he probably would chaff in the second violin chair. Littley occupies that chair perfectly. She matches his playing style and knows when to step forward. In passages where they trade material, she is just enough different so that you can hear the trade off but close enough to match in intensity. Klotz is probably the best violist you will ever hear. He has a huge sound that can match the cello or the violin, depending on the texture of the music. His solo passages are stunning. Calloway has his work cut out for him, playing in such an assertive quartet, but he always rises to the occasion. He offers a firm grounding, and is the underpinning for the remarkable intonation of the group. However, can soar above the fray when the music requires it.

For this program, three Dallas Symphony players joined them.

Korngold’s String Sextet requires, naturally, two additional players. Like the grandparents of this work by Korngold, namely the sextets of Brahms, he uses the string instruments in pairs. DSO violist Ann-Marie Brink and cellist Jeffrey Hood joined the Amernet.

Korngold was a prodigy who was lauded and feted internationally as music’s golden savior. His opera, Die Tote Stadt, was a huge hit about a year ago at The Dallas Opera.

The Sextet was written when he was only 17 and shows astounding command of a composer’s required techniques. His compositional “voice” was nascent, but it would not change much as the years went on. His style—basically a combination of Richard Strauss, early Schoenberg and Brahms—matured, became more polished, keeping his melodic gift at the forefront. Also, in later works, he didn’t quite try as hard to show off all of his abilities.

This is a very difficult work to play and to put together. Under the circumstances of a festival, there probably wasn’t a lot of rehearsal time either. Yet, the performance sounded like they frequently played the piece together. The only problem was that the dynamic levels reached into fortissimo territory too often so the moments requiring the highest dynamics lost their effectiveness. But, with such impassioned music, it is easy to see how this happened and how hard it is to avoid.

The other large piece on the program was another early work. Britten wrote his Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings when he was 19. It is another example of a youngster demonstrating his abilities. It is a very complex piece with a formal intricacy that is not apparent to the listener. Only a close inspection of the score reveals its wheels within wheels.

DSO oboist Erin Hannigan is often praised, and little wonder. She is simply magnificent. Here, she is called onto play an odd role. The oboe is not integrated with the strings but dances and sings above them. She was silent during the slow movement, where you would think the plaintive sound of the instrument would be most useful. The group delivered a delightful performance, making a good case for this rarely performed work.

Rands’ String Quartet No. 2 is in the repertoire of the Amernet Quartet (a video of them playing it is above). The opening gave violist Klotz a chance to shine and the quartet digs into the entire work with some ferocity. It is a forceful and dramatic music, filled with prickly dissonances with some detectable tonal flavorings.

Nicholas Maw’s perfectly named Intrada opened the program with an explosion of energy and the quartet gave it a dandy performance. It was full of counterpoint but it was a surprise when a tribute to the master of counterpoint, J. S. Bach, turned into a direct quote of his Art of the Fugue. The audience learned afterwards was that the piece was written as an introduction (Intrada) to the first fugue in that seminal work.


» We have a complete schedule in our Soluna Festival special section on TheaterJones. Look for features and previews during the Soluna Festival in our special section. For more information, such as ticket prices, visit Thanks For Reading

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Soluna Review: Phantasy Quartet
The Amernet String Quartet excels on works by Brits and Korngold at the Dallas Symphony's Soluna Festival.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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