A study in contrasts this past weekend from two renowned quartets, heard less than 24 hours from each other. Saturday was opening night for the People's Symphony Concerts' 108th season at Washington Irving High School, which I've been attending since 2000 and have written about previously. It was the usual packed house to see the Guarneri String Quartet, one of America's great string ensembles. Sadly, we were informed by People's Symphony director Frank Solomon that the Guarneri have announced their retirement in 2009, at the conclusion of their 45th season. (Unlike many quartets who rotate in new players over time, the Guarneri still features three of its original four members: first violinist Arnold Steinhardt, second violinist John Dalley and violist Michael Tree; cellist Peter Wiley replaced David Soyer in 2001.)
They presented a mixed bag of music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, starting off with Bartok's challenging and dissonant 2nd quartet. Performances of Bartok's six quartets have become more-or-less commonplace on string quartet concerts: a remarkable evolution for a genre commonly referred to as "chamber music." The Guarneri threw off the many fast and difficult passages with ease.
Apparently, the combination of the disturbing sounds and an unventilated auditorium was too much for one elderly listener, who collapsed during the piece's final movement, setting off a flurry of gasps and shouts in the rear of the hall. The Guarneri, to their credit, continued to play as if nothing had happened: no doubt they've been through it more than once before. It took several minutes for the chaos to settle, just in time to hear the work's dark conclusion of two ominous plucks, which never sounded scarier. (Fortunately, we were told after intermission that the elderly woman had merely fainted.)
The remainder of the concert was more conventional fare: Haydn's bright and cheerful Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 and Bederich Smetana's pastoral Quartet No. 1, "From My Life." The playing was basically solid throughout, though seemed to flag at certain points, failing the energy and precision a younger ensemble might have brought to the proceedings. That takes nothing away from the Guarneri's astonishing career, and their essential contribution to the fabric of this music. One can only hope that they've been able to pass along some of what they've learned - and helped create - to the next generation of players.
On Sunday afternoon, it was a quartet of an entirely different stripe: St. Petersburg's Terem Quartet, making a rare stateside visit as part of the 92nd St. Y's Russian Sundays series. The Terem play traditional Russian instruments: the domra, the bayan-accordion and the balalaika. Actually, not just any balalaika: a double-bass balalaika, played on its side like some kind of mutant guitar, but sounding more like Mingus.
The Terem quartet have been around for 21 years and have given performances in over 60 countries. Their specialty is arrangements of classical standards: they started off with a powerful version of the Bach Toccata and Fugue, and moved on to works by Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and an Albeniz imitation by Rodion Schedrin. They played everything from memory, in an engaging, theatrical style: more than once, accordion player Andrey Smirnov leapt from his chair at the end of a piece.
After an imtermission of tea served from samovars in fine china, the second half of the program expanded their palate to music by Astor Piazzola, Gershwin and Nina Rota. They even managed a riff on "Happy Birthday", which would have come off sounding cheesy under most circumstances, but somehow felt appropriate here. The crowd - which spoke far more Russian than English - shouted it's appreciation and clapped in rhythm, just like they do overseas. And on the way out, we were all treated to some premium Russian vodka: just the right touch of warmth on a cool autumn evening.
The Russian Sundays program continues throughout the 2007-2008 season, with performances by Ljova and the Viola Contraband and Valery Ponomarev and his V.P. Jazz Big Band. Tickets available at the box office or online.