Blair Quartet opens its season with Haydn, Husa and Beethoven

blairquartetBells ring.  Birds sing. Notes soar.

Those evocative images and more were part of the Blair String Quartet’s concert on Saturday night at Ingram Hall. The players – violinists Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard, violist John Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang – presented three works, two classical-period quartets bracketing a contemporary piece. All were complex and suggestive, highlighting each voice of the ensemble.

The first was Haydn’s famous String Quartet in C major, Op. 33, No. 3, (“The Birds”). Haydn is a composer known for his well-planned phrasing, a characteristic of the music of his time.  But he often teases the listener by inserting subtle gestures and devices, which create delightfully unexpected sonic images.  This was very evident in the C major quartet, particularly in the first violin part, where fast, decorative notes readily called to mind birdsongs. The ensemble’s long experience was apparent in the fast movements, which were played with precision. Its ability to play accented chords quickly without sounding percussive was truly impressive.

The next piece, Karel Husa’s String Quartet No. 4 (“Poems”), was commissioned with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was as different from the Haydn as any piece could be.  Strikingly contemporary, it employed usually neglected capabilities of stringed instruments to create unique effects.  The first movement, entitled “The Bells,” showcased this brilliantly.  Intense plucking was set off with glissandi to create the sound of ringing far off in the distance.  The tuning was also different, making use of quarter tones to create unusual dissonances.  The use of quarter tones, combined with the vibrato of the high strings, was so unique that I was fooled more than once into thinking there was a voice onstage.

The highlight of Saturday’s concert came after intermission, with a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 (“Rasumovsky”). The piece opens with a melody that accentuates Beethoven’s transformation of the classical mold into a romantic style.  The entirety of the piece is much more intensely contrapuntal than the Haydn quartet, presenting unique challenges. Each player demonstrated flexibility and a careful sense of ensemble in working with the other musicians.  There were parts that sounded nearly fugue-like, with the subject melody passing rapidly from one instrument to the next.  For certain, the highlight of this quartet was cellist Felix Wang.  Beethoven wrote much of the melodic content of this quartet for the cello.  Wang’s playing was beautifully subtle, with graceful use of dynamic contrast and ornamentation.  The coda of the final movement, in which all of the players were at full steam, delayed the final cadence for what seemed like an enternity, making the resolution that much more satisfying.  The audience greeted the final chord with a rousing and well-deserved ovation.

The variety of this concert was underscored by the unity of the quartet.  The pieces were all played with consummate ensemble skill.  Equalization of parts in a string quartet is not always easy, but each quartet allowed the players to show both virtuosic skill and intimate, emotional playing.  The Blair School of Music should be proud of its faculty quartet.  The performance was an impressive addition to this year’s concert series.

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About Kelby Carlson

Kelby Carlson is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music working toward his bachelor of music in voice. In addition to ArtsNash he also writes articles for the Vanderbilt Torch, a politically oriented magazine on Vanderbilt’s campus. He hopes to pursue a master’s degree in vocal performance or a law degree after undergraduate school.