Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fine Arts Quartet at the AGH

I went to hear the Fine Arts Quartet last Sunday afternoon in the Tannenbaum Pavillion at the Art Gallery of Hamilton with some trepidation.

Fine Arts Quartet
Ralph Evans, Efim Boico: violins
Juan Miguel Hernandez: viola, Robert Cohen: cello

It interested me that they were going to play some relatively new music (by Corigliano and Glass). I had read the impressive ensemble's history so I knew they'd be really good players. It was in an attractive venue. I could be there in 15 minutes (even with Beckett Drive still closed) and I wouldn't have to pay for parking.

On the other hand, I'm no aficionado of solo string music in spite of having written considerable orchestral music. My experience as a beginning violinist at Teacher's College left me with the utmost respect for those who can coax beautiful sounds from bowed string instruments. For me, beginning to learn to play violin as an adult was an exercise in contortionism and few sounds (dare I say noises) are more unpleasant than those that come from the instrument of a beginning violinist.

The players were seated on a raised platform on the long wall opposite the floor to ceiling windows. The room was about two-thirds filled but I was told that they usually sell out. In this configuration there are, I estimate, 150 chairs. The sound is good, for string quartet at least, and even sitting in the back row I had a good view of all the players who were about 30 feet away.

They opened with the Beethoven Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2. This is Beethoven in mid-career when he was 29 years old. It's a cheerful piece with lots of contrast and reminded me of Piano Sonatas of the same period. So far as I could tell, the playing was really wonderful. I wasn't prepared for the range of articulations and dynamics, nor for the incredibly tight ensemble playing which continued throughout the recital.

They followed with John Corigliano's Snapshot: Circa 1909. It's a one movement piece inspired, Corigliano writes, by a photo of two children: his uncle with a guitar and his father holding a violin (he would grow up to be, for 25 years, the Concert Master of the New York Philharmonic). It's a thoroughly tonal piece in which the violist often plays pizzicato in imitation of a guitar. It provided an interesting counterpoint to the Beethoven which had opened the concert.

They closed the first half with the Philip Glass String Quartet #2 . I really like Glass's music and have heard lots of it including a dazzling performance of Akhnaten at the English National Opera. In this case there are four movements, adapted from incidental music for a stage work, Company, based on a short novel by Samuel Beckett. The music is typical Glass Minimalism, generated out of short arpeggiated figures that are presented at the opening of each movement, the "themes" being closely related. Each movement ended suddenly as if the players had run out of music to play.

After a break the performers played Franz Schubert's D Minor Quartet. It's called Death and the Maiden because the second movement is made of variations on the first section of the Schubert Lied Der Tod und das Mädchen.

The Fine Arts Quartet gave a tour de force performance of this piece which must be a pillar of the string quartet repertoire. It allows the performers the opportunity to display virtuosity both individually and collectively as Schubert the Romantic requires many tempi, dynamics and, most importantly, moods of them. I came away very impressed.

I'll certainly be back to hear more from this series. There are four more recitals in Chamber Music Hamilton's series this season.  They're $30 at the door and are all at the AGH, all but one on a Sunday afternoon.

I should mention that at the next concert on Sun. Nov 17,  the Cecilia Quartet will play the première performance of a new piece by Abigail Richardson-Schulte, the Composer-in-Residence of the Hamilton Philharmonic.

Incidentally, subscribers (and Hamilton Spectator readers) learned that the February 15th HPO concert will be the last for their conductor Jaime Sommerville. The Orchestra has already struck a search committee to find a new conductor.

It's too bad he's leaving. The orchestra has flourished under his leadership. He also established the What Next? new music festival and is an advocate for New Music. We attended their final concert in the spring and decided on that basis to become HPO subscribers!


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