June 29, 2016

Aizuri Quartet Thrills Princeton Audience In Summer Chamber Concert Series

Since its inception 49 years ago, Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts has presented many fine string quartets. All-female quartets have been few and far between, and ensembles which can mesmerize an audience as well as the Aizuri Quartet are even rarer. The Summer Chamber Concerts opening event last Thursday night featuring the Aizuri Quartet brought a nearly full house to Richardson Auditorium to hear excellence in chamber music performance.

Merely four years old, the Aizuri Quartet has made tremendous inroads in chamber music, winning awards and serving as resident ensemble for Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation and Curtis Institute of Music. In addition to exploring the classical quartet repertory, the Aizuri players have established a commitment to living composers, one of whom was featured on Thursday night’s program. The three works performed that night were all interconnected, despite their varied eras of composition.

Violinists Miho Saegusa and Ariana Kim, violist Ayane Kozasa, and cellist Karen Ouzounian introduced their refined and graceful performance style to the audience with a chamber music standard — Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major, Op. 18. The last of the six quartets that make up Beethoven’s Opus 18, this piece shows a particular connection to Haydn, considered the father of the string quartet medium. Musicologist Scott Burnham described the opening movement as an “uncorking of a bottle of champagne,” and the Aizuri Quartet produced a light and crisp ensemble sound while conveying the frothy atmosphere of the opening “Allegro.” Aizuri’s unisons were very clean, with first violinist Ms. Saegusa playing especially lean melodic lines. The players were uniform in teasing the audience with hesitations and abrupt silences within the music.

A bit of Mozart could be heard in the second movement “Adagio,” and even though Beethoven was not the melodist Mozart was, all four musicians found elegance in dynamic contrasts and a particularly delicate pizzicato ending to the movement. The players of the Aizuri Quartet showed tremendous communication acquired in four short years throughout the Beethoven work, with dramatic suspense and a saucy lilt in the closing section, leading to a fast and furious coda.

The quartet paired this classic Beethoven chamber work with a commissioned piece from Caroline Shaw, a composer with Princeton University connections and whose music was heard earlier this season from the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Shaw describes her one-movement Blueprint as related to the Beethoven quartet in her treatment of the harmony, and the Aizuri Quartet began the work dramatically with striking chords from all four players, showing their ability to create a great deal of sound within the hall. Ms. Saegusa and Ms. Kim traded places onstage for this piece, with both violins demonstrating 21st-century musical effects. Ms. Shaw’s piece proved to be very accessible, with elements of continuous motion from all instruments and a particularly charming ending to the work.

Robert Schumann’s composing focused on one genre at a time, and 1841 was his year for string quartets. Schumann studied the form religiously, and String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Opus 41 reflected the Classical structure which had gone before. “Quartet #3,” the third of this Opus, drew from the charm of Mozart and Haydn, with a bit of dark Romanticism in the long melodic lines. The Aizuri Quartet played the work very tightly, with violist Ms. Kozasa and cellist Ms. Ouzounian providing very rich melodic passages. The Aizuri players brought out well the dynamic swells of the second movement, with a plaintive canonic tune passed among the players in the middle section, and well-contained ferocity to close the movement. The Aizuri Quartet consistently demonstrated solid unisons as the third movement was marked by sweet dialogs between the first violin and viola, and a gentle pizzicato from the cello. The players were able to add a bit of gentleness to the martial “Finale,” providing a joyous ending to the work and the evening as a whole.