On Nov. 4, the Jupiter Quartet, in residence at the University of Illinois, was back in the Foellinger Great Hall, and they received a very warm welcome from an audience who regard the quartet as old friends.
In a program called “Prism,” the quartet played music that showed, in six short pieces, the stylistic diversity of American composers of mostly recent decades. Later in the concert, the four were joined by visiting pianist Gloria Chien in a masterly work by Amy Beach.
The members of the quartet are Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violins; Liz Freivogel, viola; and Daniel McDonough, cello. In previous seasons, cellist McDonough did the introducing of the pieces. At this concert, McDonough was joined by Lee and Liz Freivogel in presenting introductions.
The concert opened with music by Charles Ives in a traditional mood, as the “Chorale” movement of the Quartet No. 1 was played. With allusions to the hymns “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” and “All the power of Jesus’ name,” this movement is in fugal form. Ives dropped it from the Quartet, and its reinsertion by John Kirkpatrick has been controversial. This music was later used by Ives in his Fourth Symphony.
The second piece moved over onto “the wild side.” William Bolcom in “Incineratorag” showed his love for ragtime music by firing up the genre with modern harmonies.
After lusty playing by the quartet in the Bolcom piece, they settled down to gentle harmonizations by Florence Price in three pieces from her “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint.” The first of these, “My Darling Clementine,” would trigger memories of the John Ford 1945 classic Western of that name. The second melody was “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” the words of which are by the second greatest dramatist of the Elizabethan period, Ben Jonson. The third melody, which gave the trio an upbeat ending, was “Shortnin’ Bread.”
Joan Tower’s “In Memory” was the longest and most intense piece of the first half. Begun as a memorial to a friend, Tower later completed it as an elegy to those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Tower’s music ranges from the quietly lyrical to some of the most violently agitated sound that string players could produce. The quartet played to what seemed the point of exhaustion. We in the audience were asked not to applaud afterwards.
John Adams’ two numbers, “Pavane, She’s so Fine,” and “Toot Simple,” from his “Book of Alleged Dances” picked up, on the experimental track, where Bolcom left off. The first piece, “Pavane: She’s So Fine,” began with a lightly touched, seamless amble, but later it became more complicated with separate melodic lines going in various directions. The second piece, “Toot Simple,” has a title which refers to the name of an old man in Annie Proulx’s novel “Postcards.” With an all-out rhythmic outburst, this piece acted as an exciting bookend to a multifaceted first half.
From other works by Amy Beach (1867-1944), I have been much impressed by the breadth and depth of her musical imagination, but I was not acquainted thus far with her “Piano Quintet” (1908). Well, this quintet was for me a delightful surprise. Beach, with brilliant assurance in a style akin to Johannes Brahms, created music of highly charged excitement. Guest pianist Chien played the piano part with powerful energy and contrasting lyrical delicacy.
The quartet and Chien blended their five voices with admirable discipline. The adagio movement had lovely moments of tenderness, and the finale combined high drama from the piano with warm melodic passages from the strings. At the end, there was an explosion of applause as we in the audience stood in admiration of these fine players.
The program booklet mentioned the arrival in recent years of seven children to the quartet’s family trees. Does this suggest an upswing in the number of chamber-music players 20 or so years from now?
John Frayne hosts “Classics of the Phonograph” on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. He can be reached at [email protected]