By Monica Mendoza
IT CAME AS A SHOCK to learn that the Ensō String Quartet was playing their final concert before disbanding. Yet their Carmel performance on Saturday for Chamber Music Monterey Bay, both joyful and bittersweet, gave a powerful reminder that music can restore life to a time long past. This sense of musical connection, present in all three pieces performed, seemed the essence of their program, as much a celebration as a farewell, a musical journey from the days of Mendelssohn and Beethoven to our own time.
Founded in 1999, today’s ESQ is peopled by violinists Susie Park and Ken Hamao, violist Melissa Reardon and cellist Richard Belcher. Despite several changes of performers through the years, with Park as the most recent addition, the tightly knit group share a mutual love of the pieces programmed, as Belcher explained. This shone through their playing, as they performed with coordination and technical prowess as well as with great care for the notes. There was leadership demonstrated by each member of the quartet. I found it refreshing to hear Reardon’s viola playing prominent lines, since, in orchestral settings, the instrument is often underappreciated. In a string quartet the dynamic is much different, and requires equal attentiveness from all four members.
The program opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor. Written when the composer was a teenager, this mature sounding work gives a nod to Beethoven’s quartets without sounding overly dependent on them for inspiration. There are also fragments of an earlier work by Mendelssohn that he strategically echoes throughout the quartet, and it gives the whole piece a sense of balance and completeness. The group’s playing, quite classical in character, danced lightly but also had a lot of virtuosity, with wild flurries of notes that flashed like lightning.
While the idea of musical connection was subtle in the Mendelssohn, it was very frankly displayed in Paul Moravec’s Dialogue. Moravec wrote this work as a commission for Music Mountain, a summer chamber music festival in Connecticut. The work is an homage to Jacques Gordon, who in addition to founding Music Mountain was also the leader of the Gordon String Quartet. Instead of simply dedicating his piece to him, Moravec actually incorporates the Gordon Quartet into the commission itself, by way of two snippets from their 1946 recording of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor. The snippets were played through a speaker on the stage, accompanied by ESQ along with Moravec’s musical ‘commentary.’ It is certainly an unusual idea to have a recording of an old string quartet playing alongside a contemporary live one. The phrases original to Moravec emerged subtly from the recording of the Beethoven, but soon wandered far afield before returning back to the starting note of the Beethoven. Despite the vast compositional differences between the two composers, a bond did emerge between the two, and it demonstrated how even though musical conventions have changed there is still a lot of common ground between the composers of today and yesterday. I do think that prerecorded music and sounds should be used sparingly in composition, just because nothing can compare to the experience of having music created live in front of you. In this context though, it worked quite well and the piece would not be nearly as effective without it.
As cellist Belcher explained, the group had always wanted to program the Mendelssohn and Beethoven string quartets together, but could never find a way to bridge the two. Moravec’s Dialogue created that bridge, and was the buildup to the final work of the concert, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, among the last compositions he wrote. This then is a very fitting piece for the final season of ESQ.
The third movement is the emotional core of the work, rife with inner strength and profound depth. It was written after the composer recovered from a severe illness, as an offering of thanksgiving “to the deity.” It clocks in at an impressive 20 minutes, though it felt like being taken out of time itself. (One thing that musicians learn fairly early on is that slow and expressive music is almost as, if not more, challenging than fast paced music.) Keeping up that level of concentration and intensity is difficult for even great players to achieve, but the ESQ held us captive. The swells, the tension and release, and the balance were all exquisite.
For its 2018-19 season Chamber Music Monterey Bay will host the Van Kuijk Quartet, Music from Copland House ensemble, the Borromeo String Quartet with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, the Catalyst Quartet and the Montrose Trio.