March 6, 2003
front page
more news
ad information
contact information


Concert review—
Quartet pulls off complex program

By Ken Champney

The Alexander String Quartet brought a superb program to Yellow Springs Sunday, March 2, and they played it with dash and finesse.

W. A. Mozart’s Quartet No. 14 in G major (1782) began the evening at the First Presbyterian Church as part of the current Chamber Music Yellow Springs series. I appreciated the quartet’s subtle treatment of the opening measures. The score calls for alternating bars played loud-soft-loud-soft, a contrast that can be overdone.

The G major is the first of six quartets Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn, and the interplay between these two titans holds lessons for us all. Rather than become rivals, each supported, encouraged and learned from the other.

The contrast in dynamics continues in the second movement, as each instrument in turn moves up by loud-soft half-steps; and again in the third, as the composer makes frequent use of the most quiet sound of all — silence.

The finale is cast in sonata form (two contrasting themes), each begun as a fugue but finished as a harmonized melody. (You might call a fugue a round with a college education.)

Leos Janácek’s quartet “Kreutzer Sonata” wears its heart on its sleeve. Brimming with emotion, it was inspired by the elderly composer’s infatuation with a young woman caught in an unhappy marriage. (The title refers to Leo Tolstoy’s novel on a similar theme.)

The music is by turns yearning, pleading, cajoling, angry, ferocious and ear-splitting as the fiddles play full force with rapid repeated strokes (called tremolo) just above the bridge (ponticello). The sound resembles the screech when you draw your fingernail down a blackboard.

It’s a difficult effect to control but the Alexanders had it down pat as they drew the audience into the impassioned music in a way that is possible only in a live performance.

The quartet hears the piece as an early call for women’s liberation. Finding that in the music is a bit of a stretch, but it surely was on Tolstoy’s agenda.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s epic Quartet in C-sharp minor (1826) concluded the program. It’s a work that challenges both the players and the listener, despite being written almost 200 years ago. Old-timers may remember a stunning performance by the Juilliard quartet at Antioch in the 1950s and a rendition in an early Chamber Music Yellow Springs concert by an ensemble whose reach exceeded their grasp.

The Alexanders are close to the Juilliards, and we could feel Beethoven’s anguish over his hearing loss and his fear of impending death, overcome by tenderness, joy, wonder and celebration of life’s immense gifts.

The music seems to come from somewhere else, sounding altogether different from earlier Beethoven or anything else written by then. All this despite the composer’s deafness, or perhaps because of it. Cut off from all earthly sound, Beethoven could hear in full voice, the music of the spheres.

The C-sharp minor demands total, intense involvement for a full 40 minutes, so I was not expecting an encore. What a delight, to hear an arrangement of Bach’s Fugue in E-flat, from the “Well Tempered Clavier.” Beethoven takes us to outer (and inner) space, and then Bach provides a glimpse of heaven.

* * *

Assorted trivia:

The name “Alexander” is Wilson’s official given name, appropriated over his objection by the rest of the quartet.

Wilson and violist Paul Yarbrough are founding members (1981). Violinist Frederick Lifsitz has played with them for 15 years, and violinist Zakarias Grafilo joined the group seven months ago, though he had studied extensively with the Alexanders, who are quartet-in-residence at San Francisco State.

They play an enormous repertoire, including all the Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich quartets. That has been quite a challenge for Grafilo, and Sunday night he faced a second challenge: his contact lenses were not working properly.

It hardly showed in the performance, and the audience responded with a huge standing ovation. The Alexanders are already a superb ensemble, and if we can entice them back again, after the new configuration has a chance to fully jell, I predict an out-of-this-world evening.