Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 52
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
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Brentano Quartet, Artists-in-Residence, Rewards Community With Free Concert

Nancy Plum

For alert Princeton audiences, a free concert treat slipped through the University campus on Friday night. The members of the Brentano String Quartet are Artists-in-Residence at Princeton University’s Department of Music and as such give back to the community in the form of a free concert from time to time. The Quartet’s performance on Friday night in Richardson Auditorium featured both a legend in chamber music and a well-established vocal soloist, who had not been in Princeton before, performing some pretty hair-raising music.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon was composed in 1942, commissioned by the League of Composers in the United States. Schoenberg set Lord Byron’s disdainful 1814 Ode to Napoleon (which includes the text “Somehow Napoleon might rise, to shame the world again”) to provide his own musical commentary on “the agitation aroused in mankind against the crimes that provide this war.” Also impelled by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the composer depicted the war atmosphere by setting the text in the serial atonal style he had developed earlier in the century.

The serialism of the music may have been hard to delineate in the playing of the Brentano Quartet and guest pianist Peter Serkin, but through the clarity of the performance, the audience could well sense the drama of the piece. Byron’s text was “recited” by bass-baritone Dean Elzinga, who has included in his illustrious operatic and concert career a good amount of music written in the 20th and 21st centuries. Although the printed text and other programmatic materials did not arrive at the hall in time for the concert, Mr. Elzinga’s precise diction conveyed much of the crucial wording without sounding contrived. The choice of a singer rather than an actor to serve as narrator reflected acknowledgement of Schoenberg’s use of Sprechstimme — the half-spoken, half-sung vocal style which is one of Schoenberg’s signature compositional tools. The continually jagged and sharp string playing by the members of the Brentano Quartet (violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Maria Lee) also captured the intensity of the music. Mr. Serkin’s piano accompaniment was well-subdued when need be for rhythmic emphasis and the strings and piano were well matched to one another.

The musicians continued in the contemporary vein with a Quintet for Piano and Strings by Charles Wuorinen, composed specifically for the Quartet, and in a style almost as jagged as the Schoenberg work with multiple series of tiny motives. The piano part seemed to be the core of the work, and Mr. Serkin maintained a very light touch on the keyboard. Violist Mr. Amory led the Quartet through the second section, while Mr. Serkin effectively led the third. The intensity of all the musicians was quite apparent, especially given that this was a long quintet and no doubt a difficult task to maintain concentration for that amount of time.

Mr. Serkin took the stage alone for Johann Sebastian Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of His Most Beloved Brother, a lesser known keyboard work from Bach’s teenage years. Divided into six short movements, this piece told a story through changes in musical style and character. Mr. Serkin made subtle use of the pedal throughout the work, bringing out well the “arioso” effect of the first movement, with clean musical figures and ornaments that would later appear in Bach wind parts. Mr. Serkin sustained the third movement Adagissimo well in intensity, and played the final movement fugue as vintage Bach — clean, precise, and with close attention to the many series of suspensions.

The closing Grosse Fuge for String Quartet by Beethoven was a fitting companion to the other works on the program in its structural link to Baroque counterpoint and its daring innovation, allying the work with the 20th century avant-garde. The piece has traditionally been considered among the most difficult in the quartet repertory, but the Brentano gave the impression of being completely in control of the piece, managing well the extreme dissonances and angularity. Effective unisons among all the string instruments opened the piece, and the Quartet seemed to thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to dig into Beethoven virtuosity. Delicate shifts to softer sections showed the ensemble blend, and the Quartet moved easily and smoothly from unison playing to the most extreme of individual parts.

As part of its residency at Princeton University, the Brentano String Quartet conducts workshops and coaching sessions with both composers and performers in the Music Department. This residency enabled the Princeton community to hear this extraordinary program (the concert was repeated on Saturday night in New York’s 92nd Street Y) and provides Princeton students with a clear benchmark of instrumental playing that they can incorporate into their own goals and aspirations.

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