Alexander String Quartet to showcase 3 modern composers' formative works

The early years of the masters

April 27, 2007|By Judah E. Adashi | Judah E. Adashi,special to the sun

The string quartet has long served as a kind of laboratory for composers. Beginning with Haydn, Mozart and, most notably, Beethoven, the medium has offered them something that the large forces of the symphony orchestra could not: a concentrated yet versatile means to explore new musical terrain. For those composers who have revisited the genre throughout their careers, each quartet encapsulates a particular moment in their stylistic development.

At 8 p.m. tomorrow, the Alexander String Quartet will perform four early quartets by 20th-century composers on the Candlelight Concert Series at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre. Co-founded in 1981 by violist Paul Yarbrough and cellist Sandy Wilson, the Alexander Quartet has since been joined by violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz. The San Francisco-based ensemble has distinguished itself with performances and recordings of the great quartets of the past -- its 1999 recording of the complete Beethoven quartets is particularly impressive -- as well as new and recent works.

Tomorrow's program begins with two works by Anton Webern. Webern's Langsamer Satz ("Slow Movement") is a student piece from 1905, written one year into his private studies with Arnold Schoenberg. Though Webern's music is best known for its economy -- a recording of his complete works clocks in at just under four hours -- and its scrupulous adherence to compositional procedures associated with atonality, this early work finds Webern writing expansive, lyrical music in the Late Romantic tradition of Brahms.

Webern's Five Movements for String Quartet emerged in 1909, soon after the completion of his studies with Schoenberg. Though still a relatively early effort for Webern, it presents the composer in the edgy, austere mode that characterizes his mature works. Each of these five miniatures is a highly compressed study of musical motive and color, in which Webern avails himself of a broad range of bowing techniques. The music is by turns menacing and ethereal.

The final piece on the first half of the concert is Bela Bartok's String Quartet No. 1. Written in 1908, it was the first in what would become a cycle of six quartets composed over 30 years. The music conveys the sense of an incipient master testing out different approaches to the ensemble. The work's three movements fluctuate between the lyricism and contrapuntal rigor of late Beethoven, the textural delicacy of Debussy and Ravel and a folk-inflected rhythmic vitality that anticipates Bartok's later quartets.

The second half of the program is devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2. Unlike Webern and Bartok, Shostakovich's catalog of works was quite substantial by the time he composed this early quartet in 1944; he had completed his Eighth Symphony the previous year. But it was only in the latter half of his career that he would fully turn his attention to the genre, writing 15 quartets before his death in 1975. Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2 opens with an intensely dramatic movement titled "Overture," followed by an ardent "Recitative and Romance," a brisk, haunting "Waltz" featuring the disembodied sound of muted strings throughout, and a vigorous "Theme with Variations."

These quartets are not necessarily the "greatest hits" of their respective composers. All the more reason, then, to attend tomorrow's performance: in choosing to bring its interpretive gifts to bear on these formative works, the Alexander Quartet offers a rare glimpse into the creative evolution of three of the last century's most significant composers. Add to that the opportunity to hear a world-class ensemble, and you have an evening of inspired chamber music that is not to be missed.

Tickets are $29 for adults, $26 for senior citizens (ages 60 and older) and $12 for full-time students younger than 24. At 6:45 p.m., the Alexander String Quartet will participate in a "Meet the Artists and the Music" discussion. Information: 443 367-3123

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