Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 25
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
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Princeton University Opens Summer Concerts With Fresh and Innovative Chamber Players

Nancy Plum

String players love to play chamber music. Two violinists, a violist and a cellist will get together informally and play the great quartets of the Classical and Romantic composers for hours on end; with enough camaraderie, the players do not even have to talk or look at one another as they work their way through the works of the great masters. Such was the case with the Johannes String Quartet, comprised of two up-and-coming violinists paired with the principal violist and cellist of two well-established orchestras. First violinists Soovin Kim won the international Paganini Competition in 1996, the first American to do so in 24 years, and second violinist Jessica Lee is a recent Concert Artist's Guild International Violin Competition winner. Choong-Jin Chang was recently appointed Principal Viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Peter Stumpf serves as Principal Cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Although Mr. Chang and Mr. Stumpf are the established orchestral ensembles members of the Johannes Quartet, it was violinist Mr. Kim who led the way through the Quartet's performance at Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night — the first of the Princeton University Summer Concert Series of chamber music. On this program, the Quartet played three works of standard Classical and early Romantic composers, but the ensemble has two commissioned works in its future, indicating that as busy as these players are with their "day jobs," they are not content to merely play chamber music for their own enjoyment.

Although Haydn is called the father of the string quartet, Mozart is considered the master of the genre. His String Quartet No. 15 in d minor was written relatively late in Mozart's short life, but contains much of the motivic repetition that links the Classical period with the preceding Baroque era. This Quartet is also one of the few examples of a work by Mozart in d minor, a key most recognized in his final Requiem.

In its performance of this string quartet, the Johannes players brought out the pulsating darkness which later resurfaced in the Requiem. Endings of phrases and melodic motives were kept very crisp and dry, and the first movement "Allegro" included a very delicate return back to the recapitulation, with perfectly tandem playing between the second violin and viola.

The players of the Johannes Quartet did not seem to look at one another often, indicating that they could "ensemble" in their sleep. The Quartet demonstrated its ability to play fast and furious in the third movement "Menuetto," with an unusual internal jog-like section featuring Mr. Kim with pizzicato support from the other players.

Framing the Mozart work were two quartets drawn from the early 19th century. Franz Schubert's String Quartet in c minor, which opened the program, was chosen by the players to complement the dark Mozart work and contrast against a brighter Mendelssohn piece which closed the evening. Schubert's "Quartettsatz" was actually a movement of an incomplete work, and heavily featured the first violin, leaving one to wonder if the other instruments would have been featured in later movements. First violinist Mr. Kim played subtly and delicately at the height of the melodic phrases, and the ensemble displayed an overall fresh sound.

The Mendelssohn Quartet, No. 3 in D Major, enabled the Quartet to play with a full and forceful sound throughout the joyous character of the work. The four instrumental voices were more independent in this piece, and the ensemble demonstrated that it could change character on a dime. All instruments drew out the long lines of the second movement "Menuetto," and the third movement "Andante" was marked by perfectly even stroking by the second violin and a well extended trill by the first violin. The closing "Presto" put a celebratory cap on an evening of solid musical performance.

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