July 10, 2013

The Amphion String Quartet Presents Dramatic Schubert and Grieg Performance

In the 2012 film A Late Quartet, the story of a fictional string quartet’s struggles toward possible dissolution, the second violinist character suggested switching chairs with the first violinist so he could take a turn leading the ensemble. The idea was met with horror from the rest of the ensemble, suggesting that maybe there is a hierarchy between violinists in a string quartet. The Amphion String Quartet proved this theory wrong in their performance last Tuesday night as violinists Katie Hyun and David Southorn easily traded chairs for three principal works on the program. In the penultimate concert of the Princeton University Summer Concert series, the Amphion Quartet’s performance at Richardson Auditorium was a crisp and meticulous presentation of music of the 19th century.

Ms. Hyun and Mr. Southorn, joined by violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin and cellist Mihai Marica, devoted the first half of the program to Franz Schubert. Schubert’s String Quartet No. 9 in G minor alternated between drama and grace, colored by a fierce and tragic character heard in other Schubert works in the same key. The Amphion players demonstrated a youthful sound, with Mr. Southorn leading the ensemble well as first violin. The first movement Allegro, demanded intense playing from the upper strings, with Mr. Marica providing delicate cello background.

Schubert was one of the great melodists of music history, which could be heard in the second movement Andantino. The quartet overall paid close attention to subtle classical upbeats, maintaining a great deal of tension in sequential passages. The movement was marked by a graceful dialog between first violin and cello in which Mr. Marica’s bow seemed to barely touch the strings yet the sound echoed through the hall.

Like the Dorian Wind Quintet last week, the Amphion String Quartet turned to a contemporary composer for a new twist on 19th-century music, in this case American composer Bruce Adolphe. The Brentano String Quartet commissioned Mr. Adolphe in 2010 to put a 21st-century spin on the 40-bar Andante passage from Schubert’s unfinished Quartet in C minor. Mr. Adolphe’s one-movement Fra(nz)g-mentation, led by Ms. Hyun as first violinist, was more jarring than Schubert’s completed work would have been. Mr. Marica opened and closed the work with a cello soliloquy, with more heard from Mr. Lin on viola than in the Schubert original.

The Amphion Quartet gave the second half of the concert over to a not-often heard String Quartet No. 1 in G minor of Edvard Grieg, composed with significant Nordic influence, beginning with the unison “Spillamaed” song which opened the first movement. This four-movement work was both dramatic and romantic, with continual rise and fall of tension. The first movement melody played by first violinist Mr. Southorn was backed by an icy and stark accompaniment from the other three instruments. A dialog between cello and viola in the first movement demonstrated an almost indiscernible timbre between the two instruments, as Mr. Marica utilized the upper register of the cello. This work also included a number of gypsy-like passages, which the Amphion Quartet played with great flourish and uniformity in bowing and rhythm.

The relatively young Amphion String Quartet (founded in 2009) has had considerable success in its short history, including competition wins, a Carnegie Hall debut, and an overseas tour. Their performance last week at Richardson was another case of the Princeton Summer Concerts series giving audiences a chance to hear young and up-and-coming performers on their way to their destinies as top-quality ensembles.