February 23, 2022

Takács Quartet Returns to Richardson as PU Concerts Comes Back to Live Performance

By Nancy Plum

With a 22-appearance history of performing with Princeton University Concerts, the Takács Quartet has made a home at Richardson Auditorium and has become a good friend of the series. The four members of the string ensemble — violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér — returned to Richardson Auditorium last week after a nearly two-year hiatus performing in the area for an eclectic program featuring music for string quartet and an instrument rarely heard in Princeton. Joining the ensemble for last Thursday night’s concert celebrating the series’ return to live performance was bandoneón and accordina virtuoso Julien Labro, and the five musicians together created an impressive evening of innovative classical music.

Born in France, Labro has brought music for the Argentine bandoneón to the forefront of the classical and jazz arenas. Most often heard in tango ensembles, the bandoneón creates its sound by pulling and pushing actions forcing air through bellows as the player routes air through reeds by pressing buttons on either side of the instrument. Labro has been applauded for his brilliant technique and imaginative arrangements, several of which he presented with the Takács Quartet. He connected with American composer Bryce Dessner when performing on Dessner’s score to the film The Two Popes, and when composer and performer were further introduced to the Takács Quartet, the seed for an imaginative commission was planted. Dessner’s Circles, performed by Labro and the Takács Quartet, interweaved rhythms and polyphonies of all five instruments, with a great deal of free expression from all the musicians.

Dessner’s Circles was co-commissioned by Princeton University Concerts and the consortium Music Accord, of which University Concerts is a member. The work began with the bandoneón contrasted with a chipper string accompaniment, and Labro showed particularly fast fingers on repeated motives and offbeat rhythms. The melodic ostinato became more ornamented as the piece went on, and the players together were able to cohesively move the music into other colors and shadings. 

Labro’s performance throughout the concert not only demonstrated the technical capabilities of the bandoneón, but also showed Labro to be a composer with a command of both current times and the musical past. Meditation No. 1 for bandoneón and string quartet was, like many pieces heard in recent months, rooted in the events of the past two years, as Labro sought to capture moments free of disruptions from news outlets, social media, and technology. In the overall sonority of this piece, one heard the bandoneón as almost a fifth stringed instrument, with its sustaining sound adding a new color to the texture.

Labro’s playing of Dino Saluzzi’s Minguito brought out the piece’s roots as a depiction of a comedic Argentine television character. Saluzzi’s piece was all rhythm and jazz, with improvisatory melodic lines and multiple drones, to which Labro added a percussive effect by tapping on the bandoneón. Great clarity was evident in Labro’s arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s setting of the Lutheran chorale “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.” Although one might not associate the tango-oriented bandoneón with sacred works, the instrument evolved in 19th-century Germany and was originally intended for religious as well as popular music. In Labro’s arrangement, an ornamented line easily flowed from his right hand, with dynamic variety in the slower-moving accompaniment and the chorale tune well-articulated in the tenor register.

Labro conceived Astoración as an imagined musical conversation with Argentine Nuevo Tango master and composer Astor Piazzolla, whose music has shaped Labro’s life and career. The electronic tape of dialog which accompanied Labro’s performance spoke of dancing music, the tango and the concept that “nothing is new — everything is old.” The performer on the tape played a second bandoneón, and the transitions between live and recorded instruments was so clean it was hard at times to tell where the tape ended and Labro’s playing began. Providing a contrasting timbre, Labro played passages of the music on the accordina, a 20th-century French reed instrument combining the sound of chromatic harmonica with the keyboard of a button accordion.

The Takács Quartet showed off its technical skills presenting Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, dating from the composer’s time as a student in Paris. The four-movement Quartet was revolutionary for its equal treatment of melody, harmony, rhythm, and overall sound, as well as for its demands for a wide range of playing techniques from all musicians. Led by first violinist Edward Dusinberre, the Takács players well brought out the Classicism of the first movement. A passage of playing in octaves by Dusinberre and cellist András Fejér was especially elegant, as the violin sound shimmered over Fejér’s rich tone. The second movement was marked by a quick-moving dialog between Dusinberre and violist Richard O’Neill, as dynamic contrasts by the whole ensemble led the sound to dissipate to almost nothing at times.

O’Neill led the third movement with a dark viola melody, followed by an equally dark melodic line from second violinist Harumi Rhodes. Rhodes showed a particularly saucy approach to the melodic material in the closing movement, which began with fierce unison playing from all four musicians and ended as ferociously as it began.

The second commissioned premiere for the evening was Clarice Assad’s Clash, another work conceived during the tumultuous past two years and modeled on an “imaginary friction between two human beings.” Scored for bandoneón and string quartet, Clash was unsettled from the outset, with a jarring opening and a continual contrast between musical relaxation and tension. Relentless motion could be heard from all instruments, and despite the work’s discordant nature, melodic material was apparent, especially a smooth cello melody from Fejér.

Like all presenting organizations, Princeton University Concerts has a great deal of catching up to do for the last 18 months of little or no live performance. The series’ spring schedule is jam-packed, and last Thursday night’s concert was a definite sign that artists are more than happy to be back on a Princeton stage.