The Princeton University department of music launched its 2013-14 season last Friday night with an old friend. The Brentano String Quartet, Performers-in-Residence at the University, set an elegant and precise tone for the year with a link of late Classical and early Romantic music with the Princeton premiere of a work by a well-established local composer. The very attentive audience in Richardson Auditorium paid careful attention to the Brentano’s musical details in the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and department of music chair Steven Mackey.
Ludwig van Beethoven redefined the string quartet form, but his 1800 String Quartet in D Major (the third of Opus 18) was pretty tame by Beethoven standards, refreshing in its sweet motives, but with just enough of a twist to keep the audience on its toes. The members of the Brentano String Quartet — violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee — gelled immediately from the first movement Allegro, timing accents and sforzandi together and gracefully presenting the melodies. The chorale-like beginning of the second movement was leanly played by the lower strings, contrasting with Mr. Steinberg’s teasing first violin. The quartet uniformly increased intensity and dynamics throughout the movement with a deliberate and clean ending. Following a smoothly-flowing triple meter Allegro, the Brentano Quartet closed the work joyously with moments of elegance, rather than the usual decisive chords and cadences.
Steven Mackey’s One Red Rose was commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Yellow Barn Music Festival, and the Nasher Center of Dallas, Texas in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Brentano Quartet will play the three-part work on November 22 of this year, the actual anniversary date, in Dallas, combining the piece with spoken remembrances of that dark day in 1963 (members of the Richardson Auditorium were invited to contribute to the taped recollections). Mackey has incorporated many sounds of that weekend into the piece — repeated strokes from the cello recall the drums of the funeral caisson, sirens can be heard in the violin lines, and the music often breaks its mood abruptly, much the same way the original news rolled jarringly through the country and the world.
In the same way as the day of 11/22/63, One Red Rose required great intensity and concentration. Dr. Mackey divided the first part into Five Short Studies, each of which was slightly different in character. Beginning with a mournful second violin, sounding as if from afar, One Red Rose opened with a series of repeated patterns accompanied by drumbeat and drone from cellist Lee. With a bell-like second section and more melodic third section, Five Short Studies well captured the juxtaposition of control and chaos so prevalent both that day and for much of the remaining decade. The Brentano Quartet played relentlessly, with sudden emphasis when appropriate and often falling back on a more reflective texture.
Especially in the third section Anthem and Aria, universal mourning can be heard in the cello, accompanied by rich and melodic playing from the two violins and viola. One Red Rose closed with rich lushness from the Brentano’s four players.
The Brentano Quartet returned to a classical giant for the closing work on the program. Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1 began with all the freshness of the composer’s Italian Symphony and a rhythmic drive characteristic of the early 19th century. The Brentano’s overall sound in this light and airy piece was well contained and calm, keeping the rhythmic patterns moving and the dynamics under control. The violins kept the music flowing like a river in the second movement Menuetto, with especially smooth eighth notes from Mr. Steinberg in the Trio. Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Canin provided a gentle and songlike duet over pizzicato lower strings in the third movement Andante, ending the movement especially delicately.
The Brentano String Quartet has a long history with Princeton University, and in this concert last week, Richardson Auditorium seemed like home to the players. The new concert season has begun with the bar set high, and the Brentano’s performance has put everyone in the mood for great music for the fall.