July 3, 2019

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts Presents Contemporary String Quartet

By Nancy Plum

Although the violin, viola, and cello have changed little as instruments over the past century, music for this genre is continually evolving. Nowhere was this more evident this past week than in the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts presentation of PUBLIQuartet, an ensemble of four musicians committed to stretching the instruments of the string quartet to new boundaries and stimulating new repertoire for the field. Violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel, and cellist Hamilton Berry presented a program demonstrating that in the ensemble’s less than 10-year history, PUBLIQuartet has made a solid mark on American contemporary chamber music.

PUBLIQuartet’s performance last Thursday night at Richardson Auditorium was far from the conventional string quartet concert in its focus on music from very recent decades. When the living American composer John Corigliano is the “old man” of composers represented, PUBLIQuartet’s commitment to the latest in string quartet composition was clear.

The quartet of four string players performed two works of composers with Princeton University connections in Caroline Shaw’s 2012 Valencia and Shelley Washington’s 2016 Middleground. A vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer, Shaw studied composition at Princeton, and her one-movement Valencia was full of minimalism and dynamic variety. Rhythmic intensity was a key feature of this piece, and the players demonstrated a great deal of musical independence yet gelled as an ensemble when necessary. Missouri native Shelley Washington has developed a collaborative relationship with PUBLIQuartet over the past year while pursuing her Ph.D. at Princeton. Middleground seemed to musically capture the spaciousness of America’s heartland, with broad melodies and a country dance feeling. Violinists Stewart and Norpoth played with a hint of spirited bluegrass fiddling, as violist Revel provided an emotional soliloquy in the middle section.

The cornerstone piece of the concert was apparently requested by the Summer Chamber Concerts programming committee. American composer John Corigliano wrote the five-movement string quartet “Farewell” for the 1995 final performance of the renowned Cleveland Quartet.  The players of PUBLIQuartet described Corigliano’s work as “difficult in a unique way,” testing the limits of a conductorless ensemble and informed by string quartet composers from Beethoven to Shostakovich. Corigliano himself considered the string quartet ensemble to be both an “extraordinary medium” and an instrument unto itself, and composed a work which aimed to create a unity of sound that he felt could only be achieved by musicians playing together for years. Despite its relatively short history of performing, PUBLIQuartet was well up to Corigliano’s challenge.

Throughout the five movements of “Farewell,” PUBLIQuartet displayed solid communication among each other, from the opening imperceptible string tones to the closing hollow sound of a solo cello. The first movement prelude emerged out of nothingness, with violinists Stewart and Norpoth periodically adjusting their instruments for particular effects. Where the first movement was ethereal and fragile, the driving intensity and ferocity of the second movement scherzo jarred the audience into rapt attention, with themes scurrying among the players. The middle section of the scherzo was marked by a sweet melody from first violin and pure tuning between the two violins together. One could easily discern the varying meters in the fourth movement, with cellist Berry clearly holding his own in a contrasting rhythmic style. The musicians ended Corigliano’s complex work in a haunting manner, certainly achieving the musical synchrony for which the composer was aiming.

With a program of exclusively contemporary music, PUBLIQuartet demanded focus and concentration from the audience members, especially those accustomed to hearing more familiar works in string quartet concerts. The reward of audience patience Thursday night was hearing a high level of technical skill and perhaps learning something new about string quartet repertoire in the process.