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
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.