The Princeton University Concert Series has long emphasized presenting the highest level of musical performance, but few recognize how closely this commitment is tied to education in the Music Department itself. An example of this fusion of performance and education was heard on Friday night as the first-rate Brentano String Quartet offered a free-to-the-public concert as part of residency begun in 1999.
The Quartet is intimately involved in hands-on education to the students teaching and coaching chamber music, colla- borating with student and faculty performers and composers, and participating in the music history classes. The opportunity for students to work with performers of this caliber is once-in-a-lifetime, and in Friday night's concert, the Quartet demonstrated why they have achieved such acclaim in their eleven-year history. Performing a concert of quartets by Joseph Haydn, Alban Berg, and Antonin Dvorâk, violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Marie Lee exhibited precision and exactness in their playing, as well as the virtues of a long-term ensemble relationship.
Haydn's Opus 33, a set of quartets, is a cornerstone of the chamber repertory. Haydn characterized these works as written in a quite new and special way with a significant change in the role of the cello, which to that point, had played a fundamental, but non-showcase role of supporting the harmony. Beginning the first movement of Opus 33, #1 almost imperceptibly, the Brentano Quartet found contrast between a fiery and determined style and a lyrical and sweet manner. As their sound gradually filled the hall, cellist Lee brought out the soloistic lines of her instrument which were so unusual at that time. The Quartet milked the lines of the third movement Andante, and closed the work with quick and clean runs in the Presto finale.
The Brentano contrasted this work with a similar cornerstone of 20th century chamber music: Berg's Lyric Suite, a set of six character movements depicting Berg's unrequited love for one Hanna Fuchs-Robbetin. Composed in a twelve-tone as well as atonal style, this suite conforms to the early 20th century Viennese movement of using the arts as a vehicle to look inward and show the truth of who we are.
The Brentano demonstrated through this work its strength of ensemble playing, as in the first movement, in which each instrument went its own way, yet worked together precisely. The third movement Allegro Misterioso is characterized as the softest movement ever written for chamber ensemble, and the Brentano was able to achieve an almost inaudible, yet musical effect throughout this movement. The work ended with Mr. Amory playing a solo viola passage, more effective because it was the first time the viola had been so exposed in the entire evening.
Dvorâk's chamber music is very underrated and overshadowed by that of fellow Romantics Schubert and Brahms, yet his String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 51 is surprisingly full of rich and detailed music, particularly for the viola, which was Dvorâk's own instrument. Throughout this work, the four instruments of the Brentano Quartet blended together so well that it was hard to figure out where the melody was coming from, especially as instruments were played in their upper and lower registers. A Slavonic atmosphere permeates the four movements, which was well emphasized by the Brentano, and the Quartet effectively ended the work with Bohemian flair.
Princeton University seems to have a deep and productive relationship with The Brentano String Quartet through this residency, and free concerts of top quality ensembles are hard to come by these days. These performances by an ensemble-in-residence add to the palette of concerts offered at the University's venues, and well complement the other series at Richardson Auditorium.