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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Concert Review: Slamming Beethoven

Four Quartets at the Clark Studio Theater.
Stephen Dillane.
Photo by Stephanie Berger.
© 2011 Lincoln Center/White Light Festival.

On Wednesday night, the tiny Clark Studio Theater (a black box space tucked into Lincoln Center's towering Rose Building on W. 65th St.) played host to a revival of Four Quartets. Part chamber music recital and part poetry slam, this was one of the most intriguing works presented at the 2011 White Light Festival.

The two-hour program paired the Four Quartets, long, hard-hitting poems by T.S. Eliot, (recited by actor Stephen Dillane) with Beethoven's Op. 132, played by the Miró String Quartet. Even if one is unaware of the deep connection between these two works, poetry paired with string quartet to create an almost unearthy meditation, the sound of two artists staring down eternity.

However, there is a connection. The Four Quartets were inspired by a gramophone record Eliot had of the Beethoven work, one which he would listen to often. Each of the poems corresponds to one of the four classical elements, and the extended structure of East Coker and The Dry Salvages allow the two works to be performed as a unit.

British actor Stephen Dillane presented these poems from memory, with a grim, matter-of-fact delivery. He entered, pacing across the black-painted acting surface. He stopped, stood and delivered each of the poems' five individual sections. At the end of each, he'd move again. Each movement formed an invisible pattern, a complex set of imaginary ley lines under the stark flourescent lights.

The performance by the Miró Quartet was the exact opposite. They played under low, incandescent lamps, facing each other, and shutting out the audience. This introverted and intimate playing provided contrast to Mr. Dillane's readings, the themes of Beethoven's brilliant, technically challenging writing threading together, like Eliot's thoughts on paper. 

This is one of Beethoven's challenging late works, the thirteenth quartet written by the composer. The performance may have been made more challenging by the substitution of second violinist Tereza Stanislav, replacing the recently departed Sandy Yamamoto. (Ms. Stanislav's position with the ensemble is temporary. William Fedkenheuer is scheduled to take over as a permanent replacement.)

The lineup change did not affect the cool efficiency brought to the performance by the Miró Quartet. They teased out the theme in the opening movement, laying out Beethoven's aural traps in the form of false developments. When the theme developed and recapitulated, it did so to thrilling effect. The dance movement was executed with agile joy. The long slow movement had the effect of a slow simmering balm, a healing poultice for Eliot's painful imagery.

The finale, with its introduction, pause, and giddy fugue was an exercise in stellar contrapuntal playing, with major contributions from cellist Joshua Gindele. This was edge-of-the-seat musicianship, brilliantly played. Equally brilliant, brightly glowing screen of a fellow's Blackberry in the last movement. This older, suited gentleman found writing e-mail more important than Beethoven. His was a different kind of "white light."

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