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The Oak City Quartet made a welcome return to launch Carol Woods Retirement Community's 2019-20 concert series. Popular with residents as well as other local music lovers, this was Carol Woods' second concert of the season. All four players are experienced members of the North Carolina Symphony. The ensemble is led by violinist Dovid Friedlander (associate concertmaster since 2005); his colleagues are violinist Erin Zehngut (since 2016), violist Amy Mason (since 2012), and cellist Nathaniel Yaffe (since 2013). Their enterprising program paired a relatively neglected quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) with a very familiar quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
Shostakovich's String Quartet No.1 in C, Op. 49, was premiered October 10, 1938 by the Glazunov Quartet. Although composed within a year of the Fifth Symphony, it does not reflect that work's drama and intensity. Hardly any of the anguish found in the composer's later works is present. Its four movements are Moderato, Moderato, Allegro moto, and Allegro.
The Quartet's concert at Carol Woods last season impressed with high standards of string playing and polished preparation. These qualities were present at this concert along with precise ensemble and intonation coupled with sophisticated interpretation. Although Shostakovich wrote that he "tried to put over in it images of childhood and a slightly naïve, sunny, springtime atmosphere," the mood is darker because he inserts "wrong notes." The Oak City players conveyed this tinge beautifully. The players blended their instrumental approaches and tone superbly. After the initial unison opening, the gorgeous sound of each individual player was explored, with soaring first violin lines, burnished viola, and dark rich cello. Highlights were hushed harmonies and varied pizzicatos. Mason's extended viola solos that opened and closed the second movement were supported by various pairings and pizzicatos. Muted strings flavored the fleet and playful melodies of the third movement. This quality is seldom heard in the later quartets, and the Oak City Quartet spun it out magically. Brash dissonance, more typical of late works, made fleeting appearances over the course of the concluding Allegro. Friedlander's soaring solo was exactly focused and his harsh unison with Zehgut was aptly wrenching. This was a solidly conceived and executed interpretation.
Haydn's String Quartet in C, Op. 76, No. 3 (Hob. III: 77), nicknamed "Emperor Quartet," is one of the father of the quartet form's most often programed works. Haydn was impressed with the Britain's "God Bless the King," and was inspired to compose "The Emperor's Hymn" for the birthday of Franz Joseph. It is used as the theme of the second movement. The four movements are Allegro, Poco adagio; cantabile, Menuetto: Allegro, Finale: Presto.
The Oak City Quartet brought great elegance and flair to the masterful classical repertoire piece. Balance, intonation, phrasing, and rhythm were all one could desire. The give-and-take between players was a constant pleasure. Friedlander shares with the late Giorgio Ciompi and Geoff Nuttall (of the St. Lawrence Quartet) a tendency to "dance" along with infectious rhythms such as those in the Menuetto. The set of variations on the hymn in the second movement received a perfectly paced performance with delightful individual instrumental characterizations. The finale was bursting with barely controlled exuberance. The packed auditorium rewarded the players with a sustained standing ovations.