The annual Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival got off to a great start over the weekend with two young quartets, both hailing from outside of the United States, offering superb performances on Friday and Sunday evening in Evanston. In similarly constructed programs, Holland’s Dudok Kwartet Amsterdam and Canada’s Rolston Quartet showed off clear and precise playing, sharp ensemble interaction, and perfect intonation. Before several of the pieces, members of both quartets explained structural and compositional features of each work, a welcome practice that educates while breaking down the barrier between performer and audience.
Both concerts opened with one of Mozart’s six quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn. In its North American debut, the Dudok Kwartet Amsterdam played the first and most charming of them, in G major, K.387. The opening movement highlights Mozart’s special gift of creating thoughtfully drawn out melodies shaped by chords and colored by delicate ensemble interaction. It comprises a series of careful and wistful musical moments that build to a constrained climax and concise denouement. An excellent performance requires tact and finesse, and the Dukok Kwartet delivered on both fronts Friday night.
The Dudok Kwartet really shone in the finale, which, as was explained beforehand, is composed of two distinct, though related, fugues that eventually get meshed together in highly climactic moments. The players blended perfectly, coming together for an exciting finish. Especially fine was the clear tone produced by cellist David Faber, who played with a restrained texture, which can sometimes obstruct the sound. But not here.
On Sunday, the Rolston Quartet offered the fifth and lightest of Mozart’s six Haydn quartets, in A-major, K. 464. The opening movement features sunny melodies backed up chords traded back and forth amongst the instruments. Toward the end of each section, there are descending passages, the fluidity of which the Rolston Quartet wonderfully captured.
The third movement is unusual for a Mozart quartet: a weighty set of variations on an intricately developed melody. For each variation in this lengthy movement, Mozart divvies up the melody between the four instruments, which sometimes pair off and other times shine individually. The members of the Rolston Quartet played it perfectly, avoiding the occasions when it can sometimes drag. The pairing of violist Hezekiah Leung with cellist Jonathan Lo, opposite violinists Luri Lee and Jeffrey Dyrda was very effective in the middle variations.
Following Mozart’s music from the 18th Century, both ensembles turned to the 20th Century. The Dudok Kwartet gave a rousing rendition of György Ligeti’s first quartet, Métamorphoses Nocturnes. This piece starts quietly, with short melodic snippets superimposed over a gradually ascending background. This is then broken up by quick bursts of rapid chords played on all four instruments. Over its 12 movements, played without interruption, the work moves back and forth in pitch, intensity, and tempo. In explaining it before the performance, cellist Faber likened its ups and downs to a roller coaster.
While riveting, the performance was sadly marred by first violinist Judith van Driel’s broken string toward the end. She later, half jokingly, explained that Chicago’s cold weather is very different from what she’s used to in Holland. It had an unexpected effect on her 200 year old instrument.
On Sunday, the Rolston Quartet offered an equally thoughtful, modern work by fellow Canadian R. Murray Shafer, String Quartet No. 2, Waves. As second violinist Dyrda explained, Shafer studied the waves off of Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts and discovered that the time between each wave is usually between 6 and 11 seconds. He uses these time frames and wave motions to construct a piece largely built around pulsating melodies formed by trills, vibratos, and glissandos, broken up by loud, robust statements, moving back and forth in tempo and intensity. The Rolston Quartet recreated the work’s misty feel, while faithfully reproducing the sound effects.
Shafer also incorporates movement and staging in his works. Toward the end, first violinist Lee, wearing clanging, platform shoes, rose from her chair and, while continuing to play, walked in front of the other three musicians toward stage left. She was then followed by second violinist Dyrda and violist Leung, both of whom walked toward stage right while continuing to play. The three of them moved behind the on-stage divider while cellist Jo, staying seated, finished up with delicate melodies over the other three instruments.
After intermission, both ensembles turned to chestnuts from the 19th Century. The Dudok Kwartet undertook the stormy drama of Felix Mendelssohn’s last completed work, String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80, in F minor. As violinist van Driel explained, this work was written in response to the sudden, unexpected death of Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny Hansel in the summer of 1847. Heartbroken, Mendelssohn wrote a dark, mournful work, filled with rapidly moving musical ideas in the first, second and fourth movements, and a lengthy period of quiet reflection in the third. He himself died at the end of the year.
Works like this allow ensembles to show off many sides of their talent, and the Dudok Kwartet Amsterdam had it on full display. They were very tight and disciplined in the tumultuous opening movement, creating excellent contrasts with the quieter, reflective passages. Mendelssohn poured his heart on sleeve in the slow third movement, a soulful piece based on a song he composed for his sister. The intimate passion came through wonderfully with the Dudok Kwartet’s performance.
Tchaikovsky’s light and lively string quartet in D major, Op. 11, has a very different feel. It opens with lush major chords that work out a quiet melody, through which the Rolston Quartet absolutely reverberated on Sunday night. The players then broke out into polyphonic phrases that expand on the themes introduced by the chords, demonstrating ensemble awareness and blend. The second movement is a charming, lullaby-like piece played on strings that are muted, which eliminate lush overtones. Such a treatment creates and intimate feel that the Roslton Quartet faithfully recreated.
The Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival continues with performances by Bienen School faculty and guest artists at Pik-Staiger Hall in Evanston this Friday and Sunday evening, January 19 and 21, 7:30 pm. It concludes the following weekend with the Dover Quartet on Friday, January 26, same time and place. On Sunday, January 28, Jennifer Koh, will be performing 31 Capriccios for solo violin by contemporary composers in a 2-concert event at Pik-Staiger, 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm. All concerts are $30.00.