Chicago is, of course, one of the world’s major players in terms of classical
music. But in the chamber music realm, it has been enriched by efforts made
in DeKalb, 65 miles to the west.
For more than 35 years, beginning in 1970, the esteemed Vermeer String
Quartet was a resident ensemble at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and
performed regularly in Chicago.
The Vermeer disbanded in 2007, but NIU has maintained their resident artist
slot, now filled by the Avalon String Quartet. On Wednesday night the quartet
was back for the second concert of its 2009-10 Chicago series. Performing at
Gottlieb Hall in the Merit School of Music and joined by distinguished cellist
Yehuda Hanani, they offered a lively Russian-themed program of works by
Prokofiev, Arensky and Beethoven.
Though the players are young, the Avalon is an ensemble with wide
experience. Now celebrating their 15th anniversary, they have performed in
the world’s major music venues, and their also hold a residency at Indiana
University’s South Bend campus. Only two founding members—violinists
Blaise Magnière and Marie Wang—remain. But with violist Anthony Devroye,
who joined in 2004, and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee, arriving in 2006, the quartet
maintains a remarkably cohesive voice.
Their tone–especially in Prokofiev’s Second String Quartet and Arensky’s
Quartet for violin, viola and two cellos—sounded big and resonant. Gottlieb is
a handsome, comfortable hall, intimate enough for chamber music but with a
high ceiling that gives the music space to expand. Prokofiev and Arensky
used traditional Russian melodies in their pieces, and the Avalon players dug
into them with passion.
Written in 1941, Prokofiev’s Second String Quartet uses folk tunes from the
Caucasus Mountain region where the composer relocated to escape the Nazi
invasion of the Soviet Union. The Avalon expertly caught the score’s
unsettling mix of jaunty high spirits and off-kilter harmonies and rhythms. In
the first bars of the Adagio, Lee’s richly textured cello set out a haunted song
while the other instruments hovered above it like solicitous angels. In the
final movement, Magnière’s violin took center stage with an exotic melody
that was both wary and firmly carved.
Arensky’s Quartet, with three low-voiced instruments and a theme drawn
from Russian Orthodox liturgy, was equally colorful. Hanani added a smooth,
satiny voice that nicely complemented Lee’s more rough-hewn tone. The
instrumental blend in the first movement was extraordinary. The quartet
sounded like an other-worldly organ as it moved solemnly through the
liturgical opening them.
The Beethoven Quartet, Op. 59, no. 2, one of three commissioned by Count
Andreas Razumovsky and using a Russian folk tune, was neatly crafted. But it
seemed to lack the spontaneity that enlivened the two previous works. The
playing was careful, without the exciting sparks that come when colliding
musical ideas set off high-energy chain reactions.
The Avalon String Quartet closes its series at Gottlieb Hall April 18 with a
concert featuring clarinetist Anthony McGill. The program includes Brahms’
Clarinet Quintet, Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 127, and a new work by
Harold Meltzer. www.avalonquartet.com