August 1, 2018

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts Closes Season with Sold-out Performance

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts has celebrated its 51st season with innovative programming this year.  The series closed its 2018 season last week by reverting to its classical roots with a return visit from the Daedalus Quartet, an ensemble with a strong performance and recording history of both 19th century and contemporary music. Violinists Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, violist Jessica Thompson, and cellist Thomas Kraines presented a very recent American piece sandwiched between two pillars of the Classical period in Richardson Auditorium last Wednesday night, mesmerizing a sold-out house with sophisticated and refined playing. 

The Daedalus Quartet showed its command of standard string quartet repertory from the outset with a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet A Major, Opus 18, No. 5, a piece also presented in Princeton last year by the Takács Quartet as part of that ensemble’s Beethoven series.  Beginning with spirited upbeat violin strokes, the Daedalus musicians played this traditionally Viennese work intimately, as if teasing the audience to come closer. Kim’s playing as first violin was especially light and fluid, floating above the other three players as the ensemble brought out the dynamic contrasts in the opening movement.  A musically enchanting conversation between the two violins marked the second movement “menuetto,” with Kim continually driving the direction of the phrases.  Throughout this piece, running notes were well articulated, and in the third movement, a particularly rich melody was provided by violist Thompson. The ensemble overall had no trouble bringing out Beethoven’s humor in the work, with an especially delicate closing. 

American composer Fred Lerdahl, a composition professor and music theorist based at Columbia University, has a solid history with the Daedalus Quartet and has composed several works for them. Lerdahl’s Princeton connections stem from his studies with Milton Babbitt and Edward Cone at the University in the 1960s, and his awards include numerous times as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music.  He composed his 2016 one-movement Chaconne for the Daedalus Quartet, incorporating a number of Bach-like musical elements into the piece.  A chaconne by definition is a composition based on a repeated pattern in the bass, and while this may have been the case in Lerdahl’s Chaconne, all tradition was lost in an ethereal upper string palette and whirling textures among all the players. Lerdahl’s Chaconne began high in the violins, played drily and softly by Kim and Kaul. The Daedalus musicians were cohesive as the piece began to gel, and the work was marked by violins swirling in tandem. 

Johannes Brahms’ 1876 String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major was considered by the composer himself to be a light-hearted diversion from his monumental first symphony, which premiered a week later than this work.  As played by the Daedalus Quartet, this piece was chipper and clean, with repetitive passages well handled, and dramatic playing provided when needed.  The “inner voices” of violinist Kaul and violist Thompson led the musical action of the first movement, while Kim played a haunting and poignant melody in the second movement “andante.”  Brahms composed this quartet for a cellist, and allegedly tried to tease the cellist into switching to the less popular viola by scoring a spirited gypsy melody for the viola in the third movement, and the muted playing of the Daedalus violinists and cellist allowed Thompson’s viola lines to emerge.  The subtle accompaniment from the other three players matched the viola timbre perfectly.  The fourth movement featured well-tuned violins in thirds against an undulating viola with graceful duets among the instruments.  There were numerous changing moods during this closing movement, and the Daedalus Quartet proved consistently why this ensemble is popular in performance and recording, and why the Quartet’s visits to Princeton are always audience favorites.