The Shanghai String Quartet at Maverick

Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, NY opened for the season two weeks ago with a concert by the Tokyo String Quartet. Although I didn’t make it to that show, I was there this last Sunday — nearly an hour early, no less, to guarantee a seat — for a concert by the Shanghai String Quartet. If the Shanghai String Quartet’s appearance and mannerisms are distinguished and refined, their playing is even more so. Each season Maverick hosts an impressive array of superb musicians, and this year is no different, but if I could see no other concert at Maverick this season I would be content knowing that I at least got to see the Shanghai String Quartet. They are my favorite string quartet of all time, and I was overjoyed to be in attendance for Sunday’s magnificent performance at the enchanting “chapel in the woods,” as Maverick is justly called.

Novelletten for String Quartet, H. 44
Frank Bridge
Andante Moderato
Presto: Allegretto
Allegro Vivo

String Quartet No.  1 in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1
Robert Schumann
Andante Espressivo – Allegro
Scherzo: Presto

String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, “American,” Op. 96
Antonin Dvořák
Allegro ma non troppo
Molto vivace
Finale – Vivace ma non troppo

Unfamiliar with Frank Bridge’s quartet, I was pleased that I would be granted the opportunity to hear it. That’s one of the things that is so great about Maverick; not only do you get to hear beloved works by beloved composers but you also get to hear less popularly performed works. Bridge’s quartet opens incredibly gently and melodiously, first violin playing a repeating pattern as the other instruments join in, and it is first violin that carries the melody for most of the opening movement. As full as the music is with quiet melody, so is it full of weighty drama. There is a glorious tension in the music, along with an ease. Cello is full of rich tones, and when a cascade of plucked notes are played the instrument is reminiscent of a harp. The music of the first movement unfolds with majestic glory, and ends majestically as well, fading into the breath of the wind until the final sustaining notes are heard no more. Plucked notes introduce the second movement, which has a dramatic flair along with soaring passages of great sensitivity. Cello shines forth in this movement, carrying great authority, and sounds with a depth that is one of the things I love so much about cello. The second movement is brief but beautiful, and all too quickly it’s over. Passion and drama increase in the third movement, as does the tempo. Even with all its heightened friction, however, the music forever retains a distinct elegance. The music drives a forceful path, leaping among octaves and between instruments, bounding forth from the stage and into the heart of the listener. The quartet is a relatively short work, but there is much contained within it.

An ardent lover of Schumann’s music, I was delighted not only to hear his Quartet No. 1, but to hear it played by the Shanghai String Quartet. There’s a beautiful interplay between the instruments in the first movement, each supporting the others and urging them onward. As important as the music obviously is, the pauses in the music create a kind of drama that only silence can. Indeed, sometimes silence carries more weight than music itself. As for the music, it has an unparalleled cohesive quality and is incredibly song-like, one continuously flowing stream of thought and sound. Schumann’s music has incredible grace — he was a Romantic composer, after all — even when it spirals into a devilish fit, as it does in the scherzo second movement. The scherzo has a potent driving force, perpetually in motion, never circling. Instead, it forges ahead with an incessant urgency. After a brief pause the music does slow its onward progression for a short time, during which a lovely interlude of sorts is played, but then the initial pace resumes once more. The staccato notes — paired with the driving force of the music — conjure images in my mind of a marching army, boot-clad feet pounding the ground. With a final dash towards the future the movement ends. In terms of perspective, the third movement is the polar opposite of the second. The Adagio movement has a beatific melody, one that leisurely unfolds and is never hurried. For all the quiet beauty that the movement contains, however, it also contains at times a mysteriousness and there is a sense that behind the obvious there is much more that is concealed. All of Schumann’s music is multi-layered, and the third movement of his String Quartet No. 1 is no different. It is that quality that makes his music so intriguing. Notes gently climb higher as the third movement draws to a close, wafting into an arpeggio that ends the Adagio movement. The closing movement is a culmination of everything that preceded it, completing the individual movements that make up one solid, complete unit that is Schumann’s quartet. There are legato passages, staccato notes, and the nuances of the music are marvelous. The final movement eases down near its end, and exquisite harmonies are played in the form of chords by all four instruments. Then, the music becomes wildly chivalrous to finish. There is so much to be heard in the piece and each performance of it that, as much as I adore live concerts, at the piece’s close I found myself wishing I had a repeat button so I could listen again.

Dvorak’s “American” Quartet opens as though on the wings of some mystical creature. It really is an American quartet and does for me what Walt Whitman’s poetry does; it makes me nostalgic for a time when the world was as Dvorak describes and conveys, a time when the world was fresh and pure. The music of the quartet floats on the waves of time, transcending any physical limitations. It’s truly an inspiring work, one that hangs heavy in the air and in your heart. There’s a wonderful conversation between first violin, second violin, and viola in the first movement, as cello grounds the trio of smaller stringed instruments. The second movement begins somewhat haltingly before violin emerges, carrying one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard. I was weeping within the first few measures, and experienced goosebumps despite the 93 degree weather. To close the movement cello slides deep into its bass notes, and with one final delicate chord played by all instruments the movement ends. The music soars above all limitations of the listener’s mind, and it bears a pleading delicacy that stays with you long after the music itself is gone. The third movement is much less delicate and much more playful than its predecessor. It is not a light-hearted playfulness, however, but a playfulness that is burdened with the cares of a troubled existence. Even so, the music carries itself with grandeur throughout the movement, surging above the dimness that sometimes threatens to overwhelm. The final movement is perhaps well known of the four, and it’s positively delightful! The music rises to great heights in addition to falling to great depths, and it’s thrilling to go along for the dizzying ride. There’s a definite enigma that I find in the entire piece, this fascinating duality between freedom and limitations, fragility and force. Like in Schumann’s quartet there are immeasurable nuances to be heard in Dvorak’s, and listening to the Shanghai String Quartet play the work was incredibly satisfying and boundlessly exciting. Not only did I have goosebumps, but I was quite literally shaking and weeping, and my heart raced until the end. I couldn’t wait to be on my feet at the piece’s close to give the extraordinary Shanghai String Quartet a standing ovation.

At the end of the last piece the Shanghai String Quartet was called back to the stage several times due to applause that just continued and continued. Despite the immense applause the quartet did not play an encore, and I’m glad they didn’t. I absolutely adore the quartet and their enchanting playing, but what could they have followed their performance of Dvorkak with? I think that of every piece they end with every time I see them. The entire concert was more wonderful than I can even express, and I can’t think of a better way to have celebrated Independence Day in America — for the concert was indeed a celebration.

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