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Lafayette String Quartet

A compelling conversation, set in motion by Elliott Carter

April 6, 2011

Why do some musical works last while others fade? There are lots of reasons, of course, but one doesn’t get enough notice: Some pieces are just more fun to play than others, and most musicians prefer fun over tedium. And if the music is fun to play, there’s a good chance it also will be rewarding to hear.

The members of the Vancouver-based Lafayette String Quartet seemed to be having a ball with Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 2 (1958-59), the centerpiece of a San Antonio Chamber Music Society concert that opened with Samuel Barber’s Quartet in B and closed with P.I. Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 3 in E-flat. Temple Beth-El was the venue for the April 3 concert.

Let it be acknowledged that some listeners have not yet warmed to Mr. Carter’s music. (I chatted with one such gentleman during intermission.) Like most of Mr. Carter’s mature works, the second string quartet is complex, there’s a lot going on, lines sometimes go together but often take separate paths or move at different paces, sounds jostle and jangle, surprises lurk at every turn.  
Well, you could say the same about a carnival, and people love carnivals for those very reasons. It might very slightly enhance your appreciation of the spinning Gravitron to know that it is powered by a 33-kW three-phase motor, but you don’t need to know such details to lose your corny dog in it.

And that’s my feeling about Mr. Carter’s music. Let the PhD candidates in musicology dissect it (that’s what they do for fun). Just let it carry you along. Absorb its rhythmic energy, its superabundant vitality, and don’t try to to fit it into any preconceived notion of what music is supposed to be.

In Mr. Carter’s Quartet No. 2, each instrument is assigned its own character, its own distinctive musical material.  It is a highly conversational piece, rather like a stage play in which the assertions, counterarguments, personality clashes and accords among the characters give the piece its dramatic shape. The first violin, viola and cello each have an extended monologue in the form of a cadenza. There are four movements plus an introduction and a conclusion, but the whole is performed without pause. As always in Mr. Carter’s music, highly refined organization underlies the compositional process, yet the aural impression is one of primal urgency and authentic emotions. It is witty and serious, wild and controlled, fragmented and unified at the same time.

The Lafayette’s performance struck me as a trifle cautious, favoring tonal beauty and lyricism (not necessarily the first trait that comes to mind in connection with Mr. Carter, but it’s there) over the pricklier aspects of the piece. The playing was very beautiful, indeed, especially in the cadenzas by violinist Ann Elliot-Goldschmid and violist Joanna Hood, both of whose instruments projected a sense of the human voice throughout the concert. Violinist Sharon Stanis and cellist Pamela Highbaugh Aloni also had outstanding individual moments and contributed greatly to the quartet's ensemble  unity.

Barber’s only string quartet and Tchaikovsky’s Third are known best for their elegiacal slow movements -- Barber’s famous adagio a prayer of healing tenderness, Tchaikovsky’s andante funebre e doloroso a despairing access of plangent weeping. Both were splendidly delivered. Creamy chordings, alert interplay, gleaming tone and taut ensemble were the order of the day.

Postscript: The Pacifica Quartet, a champion of Mr. Carter's string quartets, played No. 5 during a 2005 visit and is scheduled to return to the San Antonio Chamber Music Society next season. Also on the series: the American String Quartet, the Morgenstern Trio, Red Priest (a British baroque ensemble) and the Vienna Trio. Season tickets are a modest $100, or a scandalously cheap $75 for people age 65 and older.

Mike Greenberg