November 9, 2022

Renowned Brentano String Quartet Returns to Princeton University

By Nancy Plum

The Brentano String Quartet, longtime friends of Princeton University Concerts, made a return visit to Princeton University last week with a concert paying homage to the American classical music tradition. A former ensemble-in-residence at Princeton, the Brentano Quartet commanded the stage at Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night with “Dvorák and the American Identity,” acknowledging the impact of Czech composer Antonin Dvorák on 20th-century American music and the legacy of this composer to this day. Violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee created a program drawn from arrangements of American tunes as well as complex classical works rooted in the gospel and spiritual traditions.

The Brentano musicians began the concert with an arrangement for string quartet dating back almost 100 years. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Manhattan-based Flonzaley Quartet thrived for a mere 27 years, but despite the brevity of their existence, left a repertory of spiritual arrangements for string quartet possessing the same complexity as the rich works of the 19th century Romantic period. Arranged by Flonzaley second violinist Alfred Pochon, these pieces conveyed the same depth of emotion with four string players as the more familiar versions with words.

The Brentano String Quartet presented three Fonzaley arrangements Thursday night, beginning with a lush version of the spiritual “Deep River.” Accompanied by the lower strings, first violinist Steinberg presented the tune quietly, and as the tune was passed among the instruments, the players explored the more soulful characteristics of the music.

Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major was a key work on this program, with four movements of rich contrasting styles. Throughout the first movement, the Brentano players maintained solid control over dynamics while emphasizing the optimistic nature of the music. Each player seemed locked into their own concentration, but was clearly cognizant of the other musicians in the Quartet.

The second movement was marked by precise rhythms, short phrases, and repetitive sequences which the Brentano Quartet handled creatively. Based on the Bohemian furiant, the dance character of this movement was led by first violinist Steinberg. Cellist Nina Lee began the closing movement of Dvorák’s quartet with furious improvisatory passages full of intensity within a spaciously American texture. This final “Allegro” was dense and intricate; just when one thought it was ending, the music ventured into new territory. The Brentano musicians cleanly led Dvorák’s music to a fast and furious coda to close the piece.

The Brentano Quartet contrasted this forceful work with a movement from a more subtle Dvorák work — “Lento” from String Quartet No. 12 in F Major. Beginning with rippling lower strings and an elegant melody from first violinist Steinberg, this quartet elicited dramatic and emotional playing from all the players, with cellist Lee in particular demonstrating the full capabilities of her instrument.

By programming segments of works in this concert, the Brentano String Quartet was able to show a variety of treatments for string ensemble of a number of American styles and tunes. The second half of Thursday night’s concert featured both classical pieces rooted in Americana and two other Flonzaley Quartet spiritual arrangements. William Grant Still’s “The Quiet One” movement from his 1960 Lyric Quartet demonstrated continuous lines and a shimmering ensemble sound, while Charles Ives’ “Prelude” from String Quartet No. 1 was playful and chipper. Violist Amory had a chance to bring out melodic material in the Ives piece, and the Quartet well handled the contrasts between Ives’ spirited and more tranquil passages.

The Brentano players ventured into very contemporary and more unusual musical effects with their playing of Princeton composer Steve Mackey’s arrangement of “I’ve Grown So Ugly” by Louisiana blues musician Robert Pete Williams. The players well executed the jazzy melodic fragments, sliding stylistically between the notes over a solid cello ostinato. The Quartet closed the concert with arrangements of the spirituals “Go Down Moses” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” bringing out the forceful emotions of the pieces as if conveying the words. “Go Down Moses” in particular showed a Bach-like counterpoint treatment with a call and response between solo violin and the other players.

The Brentano String Quartet has had a long collaborative history with Princeton University Concerts and the University music students. Thursday night’s homecoming to Richardson Auditorium will hopefully mark the beginning of the Quartet’s next shared musical chapter with Princeton audiences.

Princeton University Concerts will present its next “Classics” program on Sunday, November 20 at 3 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. Featured in this performance will be pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and music of “Mozart and Contemporaries.” Information about this and other Princeton University Concerts events can be found at