The Toronto Summer Music Festival presented the Dover Quartet in a mixed program of quartets by Benjamin Britten, Béla Bartók and Antonín Dvorák on july 17th at Koerner Hall.
1) Benjamin Britten: String Quartet No.1 in D Major, Op.25
Andante sostenuto - Allegro vivo
Allegretto con slancio
2) Béla Bartók: String Quartet No.3, BB 93
Prima parte: Moderato
Seconda Parte: Allegro
Ricapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato
Coda: Allegro molto
3) Antonín Dvorák: String Quartet No.12 in F Major, Op.96, B.179, “American”
Allegro ma non troppo
Finale: Vivace ma non troppo
my appraisal of the Toronto Summer Music (TSM) production last night comes by way of a question/thought-experiment posed by my +1 midway through the evening: where does the composer end and musician begin in a performance? it’s a hard line to trace--easier when the performance is subpar--but nearly impossible when the caliber of musicianship is as high as that of the Dover Quartet. composed of graduates from the Curtis Institute of Music in philadelphia the quartet presents joel link (violin), brian lee (violin), milena pajaro-van de stadt (viola) and camden shaw (cello). the celebrated ensemble is making a TSM pitstop in a busy july schedule that continues to portland oregon on july 22nd. their name is borrowed from the lyric poem Dover Beach by composer samuel barber (also a Curtis alumnus) who in turn was inspired by a poem of the same name by english poet matthew arnold.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. “” matthew arnold, Dover Beach
the program was loosely arranged around an american theme as two of the pieces were written in the USA: britten wrote his String Quartet No.1 during a vacation in california and dvorák’s String Quartet No.12, nicknamed “American”, was composed during his vacation in the town of spillville iowa. by the time they got to the third movement of the dvorák quartet--that Molto vivace is about the most cheerful stretch of music on four instruments--the line between composer and musician was all but irrelevant, and that’s the best compliment i can think of for a performance.
the program opened with britten’s String Quartet No.1 in D Major, Op.25, which according to the composer was written under the most urgent and pressing need for artistic expression: “Short notice & a bit of a sweat, but I’ll do it as the cash will be useful.”(Benjamin Britten, humphrey carpenter)---the $400 dollars he was paid for it would be equivalent to just under $5000 today. the composition is characterized by long, almost melodic, searing lines on violin, forming abstract and austere landscapes that are coloured-in by viola and punctuated by pizzicato on cello. the atypical chair arrangement of the Dover Quartet (with the cello in the third chair clockwise, instead of the fourth) incidentally focuses attention on the cello’s percussive character, a consistent feature throughout the piece and especially in the first movement. Conceptually, as especially with the Dover Quartet’s interpretation, the piece unfolded as a study of the strains of serenity.
the gradual development of pace in the first movement ramps up to a full gallop in the second, Allegretto con slancio (Allegro with momentum). thereafter the slow third movement is a salve against the urgencies of the first two, played by the Dover Quartet with an elegiac mindfulness and without belaboring its dramatic gestures. the tranquil mood is interrupted occasionally with the tolling of a bell on cello and warm streaks on viola, pajaro-van de stadt’s vibrato is a satisfyingly sonorous. the piece ends with a traditional fast movement, molto vivace, which begins with a melody suggested by first violin which becomes a chorus sung by the quartet and is developed into a weighty orchestral swell.
the next piece on the program was written by bartók in february of 1929 and is a relatively short, running through all four movements without breaks. it’s unnatural, almost electronic soundscape is marked by overlapping wayward sirens on violins, an effect achieved by a bowing technique known as glissando (sliding back and forth between two notes) along with a variety of bowing gimmicks: col legno (striking the strings with the wood of the bow rather than hair) and sul ponticello which requires bowing as close to the bridge as possible in order to create a high nasal sound---techniques comfortably employed by violinists link and lee.
the program began with the most modern piece of the three, working its way back in time with the bartók quartet and ending with dvorák’s String Quartet No.12, written in 1893 during a sojourn from his post as director of the National Conservatory in new york. as to the work’s subtitle “American”, dvorák’s Symphony No.9 is characteristically more american than this quartet, hence the passing comment by music engineer paul griffith in ‘The String Quartet, A History’ that “The only American thing about the work is that it was written there.” the america that dvorák cared for most was the one away from new york, the unconventionally american. he liked spillville because it housed a couple hundred czech expats, and of what he felt to be distinctly american music, he had this much to say in the New York Herald on may 21, 1893: “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” (indeed until about midway through the previous century this Quartet No.12 was affectionately nicknamed the “Negro Quartet”).it is one of my favourite quartets, for the sake of the third and fourth movements alone. pivoting from bartók’s interstellar soundscapes, the program returned back along more melodic lines--some beautifully singable melodies---with the viola providing a colourful pith beneath the thin veneer of shimmering violins.
all throughout, the Dover Quartet’s performance was hair-raisingly true to form. the meditative and tranquil second movement gives the melodic helm to viola and casts the cello as a steady timpanist in the background. the highlight of the evening was the closing ten minutes that began with the third movement, Molto vivace. here the composer-performer dichotomy returns again to mind. there’s a cinema trope by way of ‘a good actor can save a poor script but a great script can’t save bad acting’. i’m in agreement with the notion that whatever the intentions of the composer, the music-making belongs entirely to performer, and on any given night it is to them that credit is due. dvorák’s singular mission with the last two movements is undeniable: to create music that is irresistibly beautiful and unforgettable. to, for example, convincingly deliver that hippity-hoppity jaunt that begins the fourth movement, an innate musicality is needed on the part of the musicians, a musicality that all the tempo markings in musical literature can’t replicate. the Dover Quartet are, in that sense, great actors, particularly so with their fervent belief in the thrill of the musical subjects that dominate both movements.
aside from their technical prowess--each member has won at least one internationally renowned string competition--the most captivating thing about the Dover Quartet is the sincerity of their demeanor and the conviviality of their team chemistry. though cellist camden shaw is the group’s spokesperson, the freeness of their interaction--with each other and with the audience--is evident of the deep musical connections, inclinations and instincts that they share. and i don’t fail to notice they are so far the best-dressed ensemble in this festival---shaw wears his suspenders very well.
the Toronto Summer Music festival runs from july 11th to august 3rd.