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Monday, April 11, 2016

Concert Review: Cliff Notes

The Dover String Quartet at Weill Recital Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Dover Quartet (Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Camden Shaw, Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt)
playing Samuel Barber. Image from
The playing of string quartets remains one of the most cerebral of music disciplines, and the interplay between two violins, viola and cello has fascinated composers and listeners for centuries. On Friday night, Weill Recital Hall was packed to hear the Dover Quartet take on major pieces by Dvořák, Berg and Beethoven, in a performance that was both a watershed and a welcome for this young ensemble.

The concert opened with a safe audience favorite: Dvořák's String Quartet No. 12. Known as the "American" quartet, this work spawned from the same trip to Spilville, Iowa that inspired the New World Symphony. It also incorporates American folk tunes in its fabric, with Dvořák's unique sensibility and gift for melodic development connecting the familiar themes at play in its four movements.

In the first movement, the players displayed a robust sound, with violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee providing lyric interplay over the rusticated, dry rasp of Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt's viola. The bottom end was provided by cellist Camden Shaw, whose throaty, rich tone served as a sturdy anchor. It was his cello that made the first thematic statement, an upward questing theme that launched the work on its sonic journey through the Midwest.

The three movements that followed were even more revealing, with the slow spiritual lament of the Lento followed by a five-section dance movement (its trio repeats, giving the movement A-B-A-B-A form) that tested the players' ability to toss the main musical idea back and forth. With three of the players working from mounted iPad Minis, the final movement was slowed a little to give the music a searching quality that was most agreeable in its attention to fine detail.

Although it took over a decade to reach any audience, Alban Berg's String Quartet is one of the composer's most popular chamber works. In it, Berg's embrace of atonality is embraced by the composer's skill, creating a sensibility of sound that appeals to the ear. The foursome leapt straight into the slow river of the opening movement, a piece that offers rocks and shoals in the form of full rests and sudden stops. Rhythmic taps of the bow and finely etched chords alternated with slant-shouldered tone-rows and hard pizzicato "snaps."

The second movement is faster and more expressionist, with stark colors emerging from scraped chords from cello and viola and keening notes from the two violins. Here, the four Dover players showed their ease with this knotty music, playing off each other and unraveling the mysteries through descending, echoing passages, dark tunnels of sound and a final coda that surged upward before ending this remarkable, searching work with a final question mark.

At its premiere, Beethoven's String Quartet No. 7 (the first of three dedicated to the Russian diplomat Prince Andrey Razumovsky) was considered just as radical as Berg's. The opening  showed the Dovers' contrapuntal abilities in a long fugato passage. The scherzo used staccato  passages to explore rhythmic interplay. Finally, the last two movements were played attacca, a mournful Adagio and a bright, crisp Russian theme to bring the work and the concert to a stirring close. 

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