In back-to-back concerts, the Duke Performances Chamber Arts Society presented two young string quartets, each playing for the first time on their series and each one named after a visual artist. The Modigliani Quartet performed last month and tonight we had the Escher Quartet, named for the Dutch graphic artist whose mathematically inspired works seem to illustrate worlds that paradoxically border both the possible and impossible. As a special added bonus, guitarist Jason Vieaux appeared both with the quartet and in a set of solo guitar works. This is a rare and welcome programming configuration since almost always when another soloist appears alongside a string quartet, it is solely in a work for string quartet plus that instrument.
Since their founding in 2005, the Escher Quartet has methodically risen to the top tier of an increasingly crowded group of young top-flight string quartets. The current lineup of Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um, violins, Pierre Lapointe, viola, and Brook Speltz, cello, present themselves as a serious no-fuss, non-gimmick ensemble that simply lets the great music and their exquisite musicianship speak for itself.
As late as mid-afternoon there was still some question whether the concert would take place. Bad weather in New York and here made it iffy, but the locals who braved the elements to arrive in Baldwin Auditorium were richly rewarded. A good motto for string quartets should be "when in doubt, play Haydn." The Eschers began with the father of the genre's String Quartet in G, Op. 76, No. 1. The intriguing aspect of this quartet is its delicious major/minor ambiguity that at times hints at a kind of meet-in-the-middle sound that Brahms is noted for. Despite an unusual presto Minuet, this is in standard four-movement Classical-period form, and Haydn is at his peak in compositional prowess as well as a democratic assignment of "good parts" to all four instruments. To be honest, as far as watching this quartet play, there was not much to say. They were surprisingly reserved and stoic, but that belied the passion, power, and musically-nuanced sounds that hit our ears. Yes, we say we come to "see" someone play, but the view is definitely secondary.
The only speaking by the quartet that took place was by cellist Speltz after the Haydn was done. He introduced us to the Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b. 1926) and the two works of his that were to come. I got the sense that he was trying to implore us to have an open mind and give these a chance, and even that they were a logical extension of Haydn. The first Kurtág work, Hommage a Jacob Obrecht, would never be confused with the 15th century Flemish composer, but the austerity and pensive quality gave it a similar ethereal quality.
Looking at the program and seeing a work with twelve movements would inevitably cause one to check their watches. However, these 12 Microludes for String Quartet are a study in condensing of musical ideas. Each of the microludes (love that word!) have a duration from forty seconds to one and a half minutes. However, brevity certainly does not exclude devilishly difficult parts, unique effects, and stunning worlds of sound unlike anything I've heard.
The second half pretty much belonged to guitarist Vieaux who enjoys an eclectic and award winning career playing as soloist with orchestras and alongside great musicians of all genres. The printed program listed four solo works but he changed the second, and the first was somewhat confusing. He opened with the prelude portion of J.S. Bach's Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat, BVW 998 although the program listed it, and Vieaux said it was from the first lute suite. He then played another staple of the classical guitar repertoire: Francisco Tarrega's lovely "Capricho Arabe." Vieaux is a consummate artist who played with a generally bright tone that enhanced the clarity of contrapuntal lines as well as sharpening the harmonies. His additional palette of tone colors was rich, and he brought you deep within the music. He ventured into his "non-classical" side with his own arrangement of the Duke Ellington classic "In a Sentimental Mood." He brought the house down with the stunning version of the recently deceased Roland Dyens' arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim's sumptuous and sensual "A Felicidade." As an intro, Vieaux somehow weaved his own version of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here" into the mix, bossa beat and all!
Vieaux and the Escher Quartet then came out to perform what is probably the most well-known work for guitar and string quartet: Guitar Quintet in D, by Luigi Boccherini, more commonly known as the "Fandango" quintet. A few things must be noted about this unique performance by Vieaux. It has become commonplace for nearly all guitarists, when playing with a string quartet, to employ some sort of amplification as many proclaim it is otherwise impossible to be heard. Vieaux not only played unplugged and still was heard as well as the others, but he was playing without a score and the quartet was definitely not holding back for the plucking guy.
This three-movement quintet is an infectious and rousing work that, as the nickname indicates, is filled with Spanish rhythms, harmonies, and articulations. It is also, not surprisingly, quite a showpiece for the cellist as Boccherini wrote reams of virtuosic cello works. Speltz played with great finesse and joie de vivre on the many killer high, fast passages. The "Fandango" finale shows what a great composer can do with just two chords and tons of rhythmic variation and vitality. So, the evening ended with a hot, sultry dance to lead us out into the cold, southern night.