The Shanghai String Quartet with Pedja Muzijevic at Maverick

The past two months found me incredibly busy and, consequently, I wasn’t able to keep up with the musical offerings in the area as much as I would have liked. Things haven’t exactly quieted down, but with Maverick Concerts opening for the season last weekend I have made a point to clear as many Sunday afternoons as I can for the rest of the summer to enjoy the incredible 2012 Maverick schedule in store (which you can view here). This year Maverick celebrates anniversaries of the French greats Ravel and Debussy, as well as the 75th birthday of Phillip Glass–an “honorary Frenchman,” as Maverick music director Alexander Platt has put it–who is American but studied with famed French composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Although I was unable to attend Maverick last week, there was no way I was going to miss this past weekend’s concert by one of my favorite quartets, the Shanghai Quartet with guest pianist Pedja Muzijevic. The program is below:

3 pm:

Prelude: Pedja Muzijevic, piano
Franck: Prelude, Chorale and Fugue

4 pm:

Mozart: String Quartet in B Flat Major, “The Hunt”
Ravel: String Quartet in F Major
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat Major, Op. 44

Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue is quite a moody work. The first movement is stunning and the music is expressive, but not to the point of garishness. Balanced between strong chords and sensitive runs and circles, it is deliberate yet also has a sense of ease and improvisation. The music of the first movement is decidedly lonely in spirit, but that of the Chorale conveys a more full and bright narrative although it doesn’t entirely shake the shadowy sense of isolation the first movement introduced. The final movement, the fugue, contains a dizzying array of notes which spin from the keys in a manner seemingly unconstrained by the limitations of time–although very precisely played–and the ending is absolutely majestic. Freedom within boundaries is the marking of a great composer, and that is something Franck achieves brilliantly.

After Pedja played the prelude concert the Shanghai Quartet took the stage, opening with Mozart’s String Quartet in B Flat. The first movement begins robustly, but in a very dignified and stately manner. Full of trills and arpeggios, the movement involves a delightful playfulness between the four instruments, closing with elegance and finesse. The second movement also contains a distinct refinement, and midway through the music becomes dance-like, a charming waltz full of decorative figures. The Adagio third movement opens slowly by all the instruments, first violin then taking up a hesitant melody accompanied by the other three instruments, interrupted first by cello, then viola. This continues throughout the movement, although the legato melody ultimately belongs to first violin which shines with radiant beauty. The last movement begins full of life, dashing from the first note with nimbleness. The music is nearly continuous, never resting except during a few breaths of silence, eventually finishing with a grand flourish (and, as was the case at Maverick, hoots, hollers, and stomping on the floorboards).

If Franck successfully achieved freedom within boundaries, as I mentioned earlier, Ravel was a master at such an accomplishment. His music is a story, a mood, an expression, flowing as though unconcerned with meter but always somehow within it. As a listener, however, meter often seems nonexistent (unless you are a musician, composer, or conductor yourself). On a subconscious level it is likely the average listener is aware that a steady tempo is being kept, but you don’t always consciously realize this because not only is Ravel’s music less rigidly structured than that of composers such as Mozart, the music is so emotional and captivating that listening is more about the story the music weaves than anything else. It is one of my favorite string quartets, and in a moving introduction the Shanghai Quartet dedicated the piece to the recently late husband of Susan Rizwani, a board member and former chairwoman at Maverick (as well as a longtime friend of the quartet’s). Unfolding as though in a dream–or perhaps itself a dream–the opening of the first movement is translucent until the pulse of the music increases as it crashes in a downward spiral, only to change and become even more full of wonder as it rises once more. The music never entirely belongs to this reality, at times ethereal, at others dark and mysterious, and the dynamic and emotional range is bold and somewhat aggressivecreating a dramatic and hypnotic mysticism. While listening, everything fades away until there is only you and the music, and that is Ravel’s true magic. The second movement opens with plucked strings, desperate but never frenzied. A few bars later three ascending violin trills signal a change before violin begins a stunning melody that viola mimics, the two fluttering over the other instruments. The movement is full of trills, pizzicato notes, and sharp accents, creating exciting textures. There is a slow, legato section of the movement which viola introduces with a sustained note, but even that section contains a feeling of unrest. Eventually all the instruments fall silent momentarily as cello is played with plucked notes, the rest soon joining in and leading back to the flying melody of the opening. After the re-introduction of the main melody the piece closes with two final plucked notes. The third movement is solemn to start, shifting into a slightly warmer mood as it progresses but never losing its sense of melancholy. Played with  muted strings for most of the movement, the instruments take on a shadowy quality and there’s something devastating (in a beautiful way) about the music that is almost impossible to put into words. The music is incredibly emotional, and it evokes the essence of what it means to be human and to love and lose. The final movement is powerful from its bold opening, and there’s no quiet mysticism in this movement as there is in the first. The music seems desperate at times, conflicted between forceful and gentle passages, the former winning out at the end as the piece bursts forth towards its end, closing with a grand upward sweep. I don’t generally believe in humankind being capable of perfection, but Ravel is an exception because with his string quartet I believe he achieved it.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 44 opens with all five instruments playing simultaneously, and although different instruments carry the melody throughout they play in unison for a considerable portion of the first movement. Even though at times one singularly carries the melody and there are also some lovely duets and conversations between violin and cello, the instruments are all largely equal and the music is more about the quintet as a whole than its individual parts. To close the first movement the music returns to the strength of the opening with all five instruments playing together, and it’s flashy enough to be a finale. From there, things quiet down with the opening of the second movement which has a repetitive melody, hypnotic in its persistence. Shortly after that the music frees up, each note a legato extension of the next creating one continuous stream of music, until the initial melody returns. That leads into a more dramatic section of the movement, which is played with sharp bows. The music changes again, however, back into the drooping legato notes before finally returning one last time to the opening melody although the final note is unexpectedly sheer and light. The next movement is led by piano forging onward, and the stringed instruments have no choice but to keep up or fall behind–and keep up they do. In the middle of the movement is a sweet passage, a stark contrast to what came before and what comes after, the latter being even more rapid and breathless than the former with a heavy hand and driving force. This movement is also flashy enough to be a finale, but it isn’t. At last the finale does come and, interestingly, at first it’s less dramatic than the first or third movements. It’s lighter than either of those two, although still very strong. Its power is a little more understated but still ever-present, and as the movement progresses so does that power, interspersed with moments of calm. A complete break from all sound heralds the beginning of the end of the movement, and as the end draws near the music becomes more incessant. Its perseverance is what makes it stand out above the previous movements, and the climax is drawn out which effectively puts you on edge until the resolution at the end of the piece which truly is magnificent.

The Shanghai Quartet is one of the finest in the world, and I can hardly believe that Maverick-goers have the honor and pleasure of seeing the musicians in as intimate and low-key a setting as Maverick Concerts. During intermission the quartet and Pedja chatted with people, and at the end of the concert the entire audience was on their feet within seconds shouting praise. The concert was truly spectacular, and sitting in the chapel in the woods, as Maverick is affectionately known, I couldn’t help but think to myself, with music in my life nothing can be too bad.

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