Friday, July 28, 2017

Argus Quartet. July 26, 2017.

Princeton Chapel, Princeton University, New Jersey.  (Free)

String Quartet Op. 76 No. 5 by Haydn (1732-1809).
Satellites (2015) by Knox (b. 1956).
String Quartet No 15, Op. 132 by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Quartet Members
Jason Issokson, violin; Clara Kim, violin; Dana Kelley, viola; Joann Whang, cello.

The day before the concert, we got a call from PUSCC that the venue would be changed from Richardson Auditorium to the Princeton Chapel.  When the Series’s Artisti Director Melissa Bohl spoke at the beginning of the concert, she explained that a fire at the auditorium made the change of venue necessary.

The chapel is impressive, and quite large.  Attendance was quite good, filling a great part of the auditorium.  But alas, the place may be right for organ music – and we see a large organ – but for chamber music it doesn’t work.  There is simply too much echo in the cavernous hall, you can hear the reverb seconds (well, some exaggeration) after the playing stops.  While we got to the Chapel close to 30 minutes before concert start, we were about 15 rows from the stage, and could barely see the musicians.

I listened to the Haydn quartet quite a few times before the concert, so I had no trouble following along, even with the echo.  It was a pleasant start to the evening.  The movements are (i) Allegretto; (ii) Largo: Cantabile e mesto; (iii) Menuet: Allegro – Trio; and (iv) Finale: Presto.

The violist talked about the next composition.  Unfortunately she wasn’t miked up, and I could hear only part of what she was saying with my hands cupped behind my ears.  The first movement is Geostationary, Garth Knox wanted to describe geosynchronous satellites, they look stationary to someone on the ground, but both the satellite and the earth are moving at incredible speeds through space. Spectral sunrise describes what astronauts see while at the International Space Station.  One would think in this context “dimensions” would be along the lines of the grand unification theory where 11 dimensions are used.  Instead here they refer the different ways the bow can be used: across the strings, up and down, in circular motion, et.

It is always interesting to see how these ideas get realized in the actual composition.  One could argue, in this case, with some degree of success.  The question that remains, though, is: why?  From what I can remember of the piece, the first movement was indeed chaotic, but it didn’t go anywhere – that was perhaps the idea.  The second movement evokes Strauss’s Sunrise in Also Sprach, which was the idea?  But it certainly didn’t have the same dramatic effect.  All kinds of bowing were used in the third movement, and the players shook their bows a few times.  I was a bit worried that the bows might break.  Kim was in the first violin chair for this piece, but probably didn’t matter as each player seemed to be doing his/her own thing.

The bad acoustics really ruined the Beethoven quartet. Written a couple of years before Beethoven’s death, it belongs in the composer’s late period.  Even after listening to a couple of movements before going to the concert, I found the music difficult to grasp.  The rhythms were “unconventional,” the contrasts not as great as what one finds in the more familiar Beethoven works, and – for a quartet – it was very long at over 40 minutes.  Perhaps that is a characteristic of Beethoven’s late period during when the composer – per our friend David – wrote for future generations.  The Choral Symphony, completed a year before, was certainly easy to get.  All that added to a difficult 40 minutes.

We had trouble seeing the quartet members from where we sat.  We could barely see them when they stood up to acknowledge the audience's applause.

The Argus Quartet is in it fifth (or so) year, and was under the mentorship of the Brentano Quartet.  All the musicians are quite young.  It was too bad that their debut at Princeton was marred by the unfortunate change of venue.

We brought along the parents of Vivian, and had dinner with them and the Yees at Panera Bread.  It was pleasant conversation to and from Princeton, even though we got home quite late as we had to drop the Choys off.

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