October 21, 2020

Princeton University Concerts Opens Season With Virtual “Watch Party”

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Concerts opened its 127th season last Thursday night with an old musical friend presenting a free live digital performance launched over YouTube. The Takács Quartet, which has appeared on the PU Concerts series 20 times in the past, broadcast a live performance from Chautauqua Auditorium on the campus of the University of Colorado, Boulder, where the string quartet is based. In Thursday night’s program, violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér presented an unusual concert spanning 250 years and including individual movements of some of the ensemble’s favorite works.

The Takács Quartet began the concert with the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose string quartets are popular staples of chamber repertory. Mozart’s 1783 String Quartet No. 15 in D minor showed a strong influence of the composer’s mentor, Franz Josef Haydn, while allowing the four instrumentalists to explore their own musical personalities. The second of six string quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, this work moved away from Mozart’s chipper major keys to the key of D minor — a harmonic center Mozart reserved for such dark and ominous drama as Don Giovanni and the deathbed Requiem. The Takács players, performing the opening “allegro moderato,” began with a fierce dark character, as cellist Fejér led the ensemble through the opening passages. O’Neill’s viola playing spoke well in the all-wood Chautauqua Auditorium and the Quartet built musical intensity uniformly with dynamic swells well executed throughout the movement.

Like Mozart, the late 19th-century English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died prematurely in his mid-30s but was also prolific as a young composer. While a student at the Royal College of Music, Coleridge-Taylor composed five “character pieces” for string quartet — unusual in that most repertoire for the genre is comprised of larger works. Five Fantasiestücke for String Quartet showed the influence of the Romantic Robert Schumann, with a folk element also heard in the music of Dvorák and Bartók. 

The Takács Quartet performed the first and third of these character pieces, well capturing the restless harmonies of the opening “Prelude” and the multifaceted nature and technical difficulty of the third movement “Humoresque.”  Second violinist Harumi Rhodes provided an especially dark melody in the opening movement, with Gypsy-like passages from all instruments in “Humoresque.” Despite the driving rhythms, the Takács playing showed a hint of joy, conveying the music’s ebbs and flows cleanly.

Renowned for his research into the folk music of his native Hungary and its subsequent fusion into his music, 20th-century composer Béla Bartók blazed a trail for the field of ethnomusicology. Also showing talent at a young age, he composed the 1908 String Quartet No. 1 at the age of 27, possibly inspired by a violinist with whom he was infatuated. The Takács Quartet, named for its founder from the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, paid tribute to its Hungarian roots by performing the final multifaceted movement of Bartók’s quartet.

This work bridged musical styles between lush 19th-century Romanticism and the lean compactness of the early 20th-century Viennese School, evidenced by the improvisatory recitative “Introduzione” leading to an “allegro molto” full of rich melodies and intense repeated dissonances. Cellist Fejér led the way through the “Introduzione” with an elegant melodic line accompanied by sharp chords from the other three players. Fejér took his time with the music, setting up well a similar melody from Dusinberre stretching into the violin’s highest register. The ensemble expertly handled repeated rhythmic passages in the “allegro” section, communicating effectively among one another. Violinist Dusinberre and Rhodes provided an especially teasing musical “chase,” passing melodic material back and forth.

The Takács Quartet closed the digital concert with two movements from the only string quartet composed by Impressionist French composer Claude Debussy, known for creating palettes of orchestral sound. Composed for the string quartet of a Belgian friend of Debussy, this work is introspective in its subtle harmonies and elegantly French melodic lines. Second violinist Harumi Rhodes was featured prominently in the third movement “andantino,” playing low in the instrument’s register. This movement was very much for the lower voices of the Quartet, with violist O’Neill also playing a prominent role in conveying melodic material. The closing movement led to a dramatic conclusion to the concert, with all players attentive to one another as an ensemble. Although unconventional in its presentation of numerous smaller movements rather than complete works for string quartet, the “Watch Party” of Princeton University Concerts enabled the online audience to hear a variety of music, from an acoustically great hall, by a top-notch ensemble.  

Princeton University Concerts will launch its next virtual “Watch Party” on Sunday, November 29 at 3 p.m.  This digital performance will feature the renowned brother-sister duo of cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason in a performance of music by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Saints-Saëns. The performance is free to the public and can be accessed from the Princeton University Concerts website at princetonuniversityconcerts.org.