Review: Johannes String Quartet plays the dark, poignant and playful

Photo Credit: Daniel Ashworth Photography

Chamber Music Society of Louisville presented the Johannes String Quartet on its second concert of the season, to a modestly-filled crowd at Margaret Comstock Concert Hall on Sunday, November 23rd at 3pm. Typical of the ensembles CMS Louisville books, each player of Johannes is highly skilled with an impressive list of credentials: Soovin Kim, the first American to with the prestigious Paganini Violin Competition; Jessica Lee, winner of a Concert Artists Guild Competition; C.J. Chang, principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra; and Peter Stumpf, former principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and currently on faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington.

In the Mendelssohn family, siblings Felix and Fanny were the most musical and the closest. She died in May of 1847 at the age of 43, and her brother, overcome with anguish, churned out a string quartet subtitled “Requiem for Fanny.” Felix would die just two months later at the age of 38. This F minor quartet opened the Johannes String Quartet’s darkly-hued program. It’s frenetic first and second movements were played ferociously. An unanswered question leads into a loving third movement, which in turn gives way to more grief and anger. This isn’t music that seeks understanding or comfort. Yesterday’s performance was memorable for emoting every note from the page. First violinist Soovin Kim, full of presence and adrenaline, lost some precision in a few highly exposed moments. But this is not a warm up quartet or an icebreaker ﹘ it’s difficult technically and emotionally. We are experiencing grief and mourning privately with Felix.

Bela Bartok’s final string quartet dwells in a similarly grim place, but with less emotion. His sixth quartet is cold and calculated, each movement opening with a theme marked “mesto” (mesto is Italian for “sad”). These dark times are no place for revelry, but Bartok manages to liven things up, if through a clenched jaw, writing for the quartet as an Hungarian folk band in the second and third movements. The Johannes quartet showed us their understanding of every detail in this complex music, and how gritty their fine instruments can sound.

Combined with the drowsy, rainy afternoon, we all needed a heavy dose of vitamin D after the first half. Thankfully, the Johannes String Quartet chose a lighter work from their namesake. What Brahms thought was inconsequential in his catalog ﹘ and perhaps it isn’t his most important contribution ﹘ was enjoyable. He wants to show us little trinkets here and there, rather than grand gestures. The third movement featured the viola, with Mr. Chang coaxing a humanized, velvety voice, lilting and singing above undulating pulses. Johannes String Quartet shows its strength in this highly emotive music. Their sound yesterday afternoon was full and rich, perfect for Brahms. According to their website, the group is currently working recording the complete quartets of Brahms, which should be a welcome addition to the catalog.

Finally, praises to Chamber Music Society of Louisville, capable of programming a season that is on par with major presenters in Chicago or New York, at a fraction of the ticket price, in the best venue in town. The next Chamber Music Society of Louisville concert is February 15th at 3pm, again at Comstock Concert Hall, with the Amernet String Quartet and soprano Lauren Skuce Gross.

Photo Credit: Daniel Ashworth Photography

LA Piano Quartet Premiering New Work in Louisville

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It’s not every weekend you find a world premiere performance in Louisville, but in fact this weekend there are two. The LA Piano Quartet will be in town to open the Chamber Music Society of Louisville‘s new season (Sunday at 3pm), and to premiere a work they’ve commissioned from Christopher Stark. Piano Quartet, is in three movements, each dedicated to a composer important to Stark’s life, from mentors and teachers Jonathan Harvey and Roberto Sierra, to his friend and fellow composer Sean Shepherd. The second movement, dedicated to Shepherd, is also a personal reflection on the death of Michael Brown and the aftermath that has gripped Ferguson, Missouri.

Daniel Gilliam talked with Christopher Stark and Xak Bjerken, pianist for the LA Piano Quartet, about this new work.

Here is the LA Piano Quartet performing another commissioned by Steven Stucky.

Kentucky Center Stage

chamber music lex

We are starting a new show, in partnership with WEKU, called Kentucky Center Stage. The first broadcast on Classical 90.5 is this Saturday at 6pm, featuring highlights from the 2013 Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. Daniel Gilliam hosts, with performances from Nicholas Phan, and the entire festival ensemble. Join us every Saturday at 6pm for performances through out the Bluegrass State.

Lustig Premiere

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As part of our broadcasts from the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, we’ll be presenting the premiere broadcast of a new work by Raymond Lustig called Ambition, performed by Nicholas Phan and the festival ensemble. Lustig currently lives in New York City and teaches at Juilliard, and also happens to be a published researcher in molecular biology (!). His music can be at times mysterious, beautiful and arresting. Compose Thyself (below) was written while Lustig was in residence at the Copland House, and is based on fragments from J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 210a. There’s also a “ghostly” presence of Copland that appears and vanishes through out.

Featured Album: Schubert for Violin and Piano

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In just three decades, Franz Schubert created more music than composers twice or thrice his age. Despite writing so much, his fan base was small. But most of his music was never intended for large audiences. His hundreds of songs and dozens of chamber works (ranging from miniature to expansive) were written for salons, living rooms and intimate gatherings. Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien have captured his music for violin and piano (two instruments Schubert knew well) in their latest release from Hyperion.