Music Review: Big changes ahead for the Blair String Quartet

blairquartetIn last year’s terrific film A Late Quartet, a fictional ensemble struggles with anxiety after a long-time member of the group decides to retire. I was thinking about that movie on Saturday night, when the Blair String Quartet presented a program of Haydn, Prokofiev and Mendelssohn at Ingram Hall.

Christian Teal, the Blair Quartet’s veteran first violinist, has decided to retire at the end of this season.  If Teal’s colleagues are feeling any angst about his pending departure, though, they weren’t showing it on Saturday.

As usual, the members of this quartet – violinists Teal and Cornelia Heard, violist John Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang – played with complete technical security and a bright, lean tone. There was certainly much to admire in the group’s performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in G major, Op. 77, No. 1, which opened the concert.

Haydn composed this late work in 1802, at a time when his quartets were beginning to sound Beethovenian. The Blair Quartet captured this aspect of Haydn’s music with playing that was often forceful and dramatic. Indeed, everything about this reading was strong, but I especially enjoyed the lyricism that the players brought to the adagio, and the turbulence that they found in the menuetto, which was played with scherzo-like energy. Too often, Haydn’s music sounds like the work of a courtly servant. The Blair players turned him into a red-meat composer.

The Blair Quartet has an affinity for modern music – the group has performed the complete Bartók cycle and has commissioned numerous new pieces. So it was no surprise to hear the ensemble excel in Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 92.

Composed in 1942, this work made liberal use of Russian folk song and dance, and the Blair players obviously had fun playing it.  Their performance in the outer movements seemed especially muscular, suggesting vigorous peasant dances. Wang shined in the second movement, a kind of love song without words that he played with warmth and quiet urgency.

The ensemble concluded with Mendelssohn’s tragic String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80. Mendelssohn composed this piece in 1847, shortly after the death of his beloved sister Fanny. The Blair players brought out all of the stormy drama in this work, but they also illuminated its pathos and lyrical beauty.

The performance won a justly deserved standing ovation, which must have been music to the ears of the soon-to-be-retired first violinist. His playing throughout the evening was remarkable for its clarity and intense musicality. Without question, his first chair will be a difficult one to fill.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.