Review: Dover Quartet Plays a Blustery Program on a Blustery Night
On a blustery Friday night, the Dover Quartet gave a note-perfect performance at the Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. While the Chicagoland region was battening down for the year’s worst snowstorm, the Bienen School of Music’s Quartet in Residence wowed a large audience by performing two stormy works: Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 117, and Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in d-minor, Death and the Maiden, D.810.
Before the bluster, the concert started with a recently recovered quartet by Florence Price, a Chicago-based African American composer whose wonderful output has been ridiculously overlooked by the classical music community. In 2009, her String Quartet no. 1 in G-Major was discovered in a trunk in the attic of an abandoned house 70 miles south of Chicago. Price had used this house as a weekend residence and studio. This quartet was a nice contrast to other works on Friday’s programs.
Composing from the first half of the 20th century, Price offers a nice mixture of traditional and contemporary tonalities in her music. While in a major key, the opening movement quickly explores unusual harmonies and tonalities that create an aural halo. It’s a soundscape that allowed the Dover Quartet to display an ensemble composure that few other quartets can match. They achieve the ideal of making four musicians sound like one. Throw in uncanny intonation and sharp phrasing, and they really create a special sound.
Following a thoughtful explanation from cellist Camden Shaw, Dover Quartet broke into Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 9. This fascinating work in five movements, played without interruption, allowed the members to show off great technique, whether bowing or plucking, playing solo or in pairs, or pausing abruptly.
It opens at a quiet, moderate pace, with first violinist Joel Link and second violinist Bryan Lee playing interweaving melodies while violist Julianne Lee and cellist Shaw play background drone. In several places, the score calls for long notes in a drone-like fashion, sometimes very quietly. Those notes were played without even the slightest deviation in sound. Eventually three-note and five-note rhythmic phrases emerge, and they reappear throughout the work.
Most noteworthy was the way they handled the transitions between the five movements, starting with the first one, where a single, long-held note starts the shift to the Adagio second movement. They also were seamless shifting between waltz and duple time in the finale, which is where the bluster comes in full force.
Following intermission, the bluster resumed from the start of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. During this Viennese composer’s short life, hundreds of works came from his quill, but few are as gloomy as this quartet. Interspersed are moments of sunshine, but drama predominates, especially in the opening movement, third movement Scherzo, and finale.
The second movement is a slow set of double variations using the theme from Schubert’s song Death and the Maiden. As the title suggests, it opens with a sad aria, but the second theme is very hopeful and optimistic. This palette lent itself well to the Dover’s wide range of expressiveness. Each player took full advantage of their opportunity to shine, yet they still came across as one. Wonderful.
The Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival continues this Sunday, when the Calder Quartet plays early Beethoven, contemporary works by Thomas Adès and Caroline Shaw, and a masterpiece by Claude Debussy. January 14, 3pm. Next Friday, January 19, 7:30pm, the Parker Quartet plays Haydn’s first b-minor Quartet, Bacewicz String Quartet No. 4, and Beethoven’s final quartet. The festival ends Sunday, January 21, 3pm, with the Gryphon Trio playing Beethoven’s Ghost trio, Russell’s we have lived before, and Schubert’s B-flat trio. All concerts are at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. For more information, click here.
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A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.