November is “Beethoven Awareness Month” for WQXR, New York City’s classical radio station. For thirty days, the network (online at wqxr.org) commemorates Beethoven’s eternal music in several ways, including offering a free weekly download of a selected recording of the composer’s music and streaming an all-Beethoven station from its website. Most notably, WQXR arranges a one-day marathon of concerts covering the entirety of a genre of Beethoven’s creative output. Last year, it put on his piano sonatas. This year, on November 18th, it selected his string quartets.
I was privy only to the final set of the five consecutive concerts which together spanned over ten hours of that Sunday afternoon and evening. Each of the three quartets I heard in that concert represented one of Beethoven’s three major periods – early, middle, and late – and each was performed by a different quartet. I much enjoyed that setup, which I had already experienced in last year’s event, as it provided those of us who did not or could attend the entire marathon with a glimpse of the three very different Beethovens who can be heard in the man’s music. Early Beethoven was a classicist with an attitude problem, middle Beethoven ushered in the new era of Romanticism with exceptional energy and vigor, and late Beethoven, a stone-deaf but tone-perfect composer whose music still belongs to no era, undertook a transformative spiritual exploration which even he never fully understood. At Sunday’s concert, I was excited to hear samples from all three of these composers.
Just as was arranged last year, the players ranged from students and recent graduates of The Julliard School of Music to up-and-coming performers and seasoned professionals. The first group to take the stage comprised a mix of the former. They played Opus 18.5 in A major, a bright, friendly piece from Beethoven’s early quartets. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised with the cohesion and control of their performance. After last year’s student performers varied in their effectiveness, I did not expect such a delightfully pristine display of patience with the work’s dynamics. The unnamed quartet, which the convivial host dubbed “Sine Nomine” (without a name), was so well received that the audience demanded a curtain call afterward.
The second performance, of Opus 59.3 in C major, the third of the “Rasoumovsky” Quartets, had its ups and downs. First, the good: the Jasper String Quartet, a fairly young ensemble, expressed the overwhelming excitement of the piece in their faces and motions. At moments of release, they smiled. During periods of rumbling tension, they worked their instruments with an apparent vigor. They smirked at each other (some of that might have been the husband and wife flirting; I’m not sure), passed cues with their bodies, and overall seemed to embody the atmosphere of the piece as it progressed. That might seem like a minor point, but I assure you that it is not. Music is a performance art, much like dance or theater. If the performers act interested in the music, then the audience follows suit.
There’s more to praise. The final movement of Opus 59.3 powers forward with a sense of urgent, aggressive motion that is unmatched among string compositions. The technical difficulties associated with playing its exceedingly fast tempo and displaying its complex counterpoint cannot be underrated, but the Jasper Quartet’s remarkable rendition never muddled the notes. As it approached its climax, I was actually progressively leaning more and more out of my seat in expectation of the final resolution.
What went wrong? The first violinist, who managed the tempo of the final movement without issue, made glaring mistakes in the first movement, notably in the violin solos which open the movement’s exposition section. I’m not sure how he managed to mess that part up, of all things. It doesn’t look difficult on paper, but then again, I’m not a violinist. Maybe he was nervous; I don’t know. I do know that I heard a few notes that didn’t belong.
The last quartet to play, the Orion Quartet, was the exact opposite of the Jasper. The host introduced them mockingly as players who have “done too much teaching” because they were all professors from various universities, some from multiple places. I must inform you, accidentally insightful host, that you could not have been more correct. Though the players’ flawless performance of Opus 135 bore witness to their vast professional experience, it was undermined by their apparent lack of interest in what they were doing. In contrast to the Jasper, whose exciting performance, though imperfect, was reflected in their attitudes and motions, the Orion just seemed like a bunch of old folks doing yet another gig. They looked bored and, at times, tired. With the exception of the cellist, who actually looked like he was doing something enjoyable, the other three performers maintained grim frowns as they rushed through the notes like they had done it a thousand times before. I’m sure they would rather have been convincing some impressionable students that twelve-tone music doesn’t sound like someone dropping a sack of bolts on the floor.
On November 18th, I learned the difference between a student, a performer, and a professor. I also heard some examples of the best music ever written. Check out Beethoven Awareness Month here.