Of the many local cultural events canceled as a result of the pandemic over the past two years, those for Northwestern University’s annual Winter Chamber Music Festival Bienen School of Music were particularly unfortunate.
The 2020 edition had to be cut short, last year’s festival was canceled in its entirety and this year’s event lost its opening weekend, which was to include concerts by the string quartets Ariel and St.Lawrence. (Sets will be rescheduled, according to festival director and Bienen School faculty member Blair Milton.)
Now, with the start of the new year, classical music broadcasters across the region are cautiously returning to some semblance of normalcy in their immediate and long-term planning, and the Winter Chamber Fest is following suit.
It was therefore up to the Quatuor Miró to give the real opening concert of the 25and Winter Chamber Music Festival anniversary season on Saturday nights at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. There are two more events in the series this month and the next, good news for chamber music lovers hungry for the pleasures of live music during the long Covid-induced lockdown.
The Miró Quartet is now in its 27and year and its 19and as a resident ensemble at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Saturday’s concert marked his first appearance at the festival since 2014.
As the first string quartet to receive the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Award, the highly respected group – named after the great Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró – ranks among the finest American chamber groups produced in the past three decades. .
Violinists Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violist John Largesse and cellist Joshua Gindele perform with the confidence, precision and interpretative determination of ensembles several years their senior. The four clearly enjoy performing together, and their shared enjoyment is reflected as much in the audience reaction as in the polished vitality of their performances.
All of this was prominently featured in Miró’s account of Kevin Puts’ String Quartet Homepage, the centerpiece of Saturday’s program, which framed the 2020 work with equally assured readings from the standard repertoire of Mozart and Ravel.
Puts received a Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed opera silent night in 2012 and his close association with the Mirós led him to compose several works for them, including this, his fourth string quartet, in 2020. Puts is inspired by the humanitarian crisis of displaced migrants and refugees in which the Europe got entangled at the time. Questions of who belongs where and what “home” means to find musical expression in his 12-minute piece.
All four instruments are tuned to the pitches of C major rather than the usual circle of fifths, creating a soft harmonic cushion of “home” from which migrant-players abandon for sometimes foreign harmonic realms, returning to the tonal center to finish it. The music unfolds in waves of increasing dramatic intensity from the swinging motion of the string crossings at the start. Bursts of contrapuntal activity, no doubt intended to depict displaced people seeking safe refuge, find the materials fragmented and combined to produce sonically intriguing new musical forms. Swift gestures grab the final pages of what sounded to these ears like an ambiguous and happy resolution to a lingering global crisis.
The astonishing precision, strength, beauty and commitment of Miró’s performance marked Homepage as an important addition to the repertoire of contemporary American string quartets. Other groups can be expected to pick it up, though none are likely to top the mastery that Saturday’s players gave it.
The first thing that struck this listener in the opening pages of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F was the exceptional refinement and variety of timbres that Miró brought to this 20and masterpiece of the century. (These splendid musicians aren’t called “Miró” for nothing.) Second, they skillfully tempered American vitality with Gallic elegance. The rhythms were lucidly defined, the linear organization was acute. And while violinist Ching and his colleagues (he and cellist Gindele are the founding members of the quartet) have maintained a pinpoint precision and dynamism, they have never neglected the sensual aspects of Ravel: the score marking very soft (very soft) has always occupied a prominent place in their timbral arsenal. A triumphant read all around.
Mozart’s String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat, K.458 (“The Hunt”), a late replacement for the originally planned Samuel Barber Quartet, began the concert with a note of balance, proportion and finely tuned tonal grace. considered classic. While Ching handled the heavy lifting of the melodic work, each instrumentalist reacted alertly to some of Mozart’s happiest parts among his set of “Haydn” quartets. The tempos were quick but never rushed, while the melodic exchanges and phrasing announced a warmly intimate conversation between friends.
The encore was Jerome Kern’s silky string quartet arrangement of his classic song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, lovingly and, like everything else on the program, beautifully performed.
The 2022 Winter Chamber Music Festival continues with the Ying Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Sunday; and Dover Quartet, 7:30 p.m. February 15, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, Evanston. music.northwestern.edu/events
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