The Casual Blog

Tag: Jerusalem Quartet

By Yates Mill Pond, and some quartets and symphonies

Yates Mill Pond, March 24, 2018

On Saturday, the forecast was for rain, but it was dry when I went out early to Yates Mill Pond, though chilly.  It seemed like winter left last month, and then came back. There were few other humans, but lots of birds, including honking Canada geese, trilling Carolina wrens, and a quiet pair of hooded merganser ducks.

On Saturday night, we went over to Durham for the sixth concert of the Duke Chamber Music series, where we heard the Jerusalem Quartet.  I’m aware that many people think of string quartet music as per se boring, which is too bad. At its best, a string quartet is an extraordinary being: a four-person virtuoso, an entity with the sensitivity of one and the knowledge of many.  And some of the greatest music in the western classical tradition is written for this ensemble.

The Jerusalem Quartet was amazing.  These four serious-looking young men were absolute masters of their instruments, and 100 percent committed. They took a questing, energized approach to the music, and convinced me that the Beethoven op. 95 should be considered a late, rather than a middle, quartet.  Their Debussy was a sonic marvel.

I wasn’t familiar with the Shostakovich second quartet, and liked it less than other Shostakovich quartets, but it was worth hearing. Composed near the end of WWII in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it raises the question of the role of music in a world of bloody war in a society led by a murderous psychopath.    The answer seemed to be — a tenuous, strained, painful beauty.

For the last few weeks we’ve been getting to know the seven symphonies of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).  These symphonies are essentially romantic, but full of moods and questions, restless and heroic. There are numerous excellent versions available for free or almost on Spotify.   Our favorites are number two and number five, but all seven have wonderful moments.

An eye update, and a very musical weekend

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It was quite a musical weekend, with three concerts, but before I get to that, for those kind souls following my eye surgery saga, a brief update: my one week postop checkup was last Tuesday. While Dr. M was away speaking at a conference, I got examined up by Dr. S, one of his fellows. I did substantially better on the chart test, seeing part of three rows (up from zero the previous week). But things were still very foggy. Dr. S detected corneal edema, which sometimes happens after surgery, and likely would clear up in a few weeks. From what he could see of the retina, he thought it was doing OK.

Friday evening was mild and clear, and we sat outside for dinner at Buku. Their pad thai may be the best in town In any case, it was delicious. I tried the flight of three wines from Naples, which were worth trying. For dessert we got two spoons and one apple tart with cinnamon ice cream, which was a treat, then walked three blocks to hear the N.C. Symphony.

It was our first symphony concert of this season, and I was looking forward to it. The highlight of the evening was Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnol, a piece with rich colors and textures that featured sectional solos from most subgroups of the orchestra. The sound was fantastic. I was particularly struck by the warmth and vibrancy of the strings, which made me think of the famous Philadelphia sound. Conductor Grant Llewelleyn always looks great, but at times he’s struck me as too rhythmically literal and rigid. Not last night – there was a lot of rhythm flexibility as well as high energy. It was a brilliant performance worthy of a great ensemble.

Also featured on the program was a young Korean pianist named Joyce Wang, who played Cesar Frank’s Symphonic Variations and Manuel De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. I liked the de Falla, and I really liked her. She was unquestionably a real musician — sensitive, imaginative, and willing to take risks. And she had a spectacular silver shimmering gown, which fit her nicely.

Does it matter how a pianist looks? I’d like to think that the sound is ultimately what matters, but a recent short piece in the Economist points strongly the other way. Experts and musical amateurs tried to rank the three top finishers in a piano competition based on either sound alone or video alone. With sound alone, the amateurs didn’t get close to agreeing with the original judges – but neither did the experts. With video, both amateurs and experts came much closer to the actual results, and agreed together. This suggests that showmanship is a big part of what we enjoy about a musical performance, and how we distinguish one player from another.

On Saturday night Diane, my mother-in-law, and I went to the N.C. Opera’s new production of Mozart/da Ponte’s Cosi Fan Tutte. I’d enjoyed listening to it on my iPad during my morning workouts, but had never seen it. It was a really good show! The set was classically elegant, and the period costumes almost sumptuous. English subtitles were projected above the stage. The six principles were all musically and comically gifted. And Mozart’s music is sublime. So much melody, so natural but so inventive and surprising!

The plot device is oddly dissonant to a non-eighteenth-century audience: it is a comedy on the theme of women’s (but not men’s) inconstancy in love. There are moments that seem harshly cynical and misogynistic. But the meta message is more cheerful: human attraction is unquenchable, touching, and also at times very funny.

On Sunday afternoon Sally and I went to a concert by the Jerusalem Quartet, which played Mozart, Shostakovich, and Dvorak. They were four intense young men in dark suits and ties, and they were excellent. This is really a world-class ensemble, with a brilliant first violinist. I