John Frayne: Jasper Quartet offers delightful performances of pieces old and new

The Jasper String Quartet, winner of the 2012 Cleveland Quartet Award, played a varied program Jan. 27 at the Sunday Salon concert in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Beginning with a quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn, this highly talented group went on to the intense and ambitious "musica instrumentalis" quartet by Aaron Jay Kernis, and finishing with the Third "Razumovsky" Quartet of Ludwig van Beethoven, a work that inspired the Kernis piece.

The members of the Jasper Quartet are J Freivogel, violin; Sae Chonabayashi, violin; Sam Quintal, viola; and Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello. This group gets its name from Jasper National park in Alberta, Canada, and J (no period) and Rachel are married.

"What, two Freivogels?" you might ask. "Doesn't our quartet in residence, the Jupiter, have two Freivogels?"

Yes, indeed, Megan and Lisa. It seems that the Freivogel family had a family string quartet, and J played along with his sisters, Megan and Lisa.

The opening work, Haydn's String Quartet No. 67 in F major, Op. 77, No. 2 is Haydn's last work in a form which he virtually created, and it is one of two works that bears the name "Lobkowitz," after the Bohemian prince who commissioned them.

For a last word by Haydn in this form, this piece has many moments of pure joy, and the Jasper group played with a fresh buoyancy, displaying fine intonation and lovely tone along the way.

Then came Kernis' 1998 work, String Quartet No. 2, "musica instrumentalis." The impressive Latin title reminds me of Paul Hindemith's Symphony, "Harmony of the World," about the astronomer Johannes Kepler, with Latin titles of movements. (Hindemith's first movement is entitled "Musica instrumentalis.")

Kernis had written in 1990 another string quartet with the title "Musica Celestis," so there is a continuity in these Kernis works. This second quartet, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1998, is based in some ways on the Beethoven Quartet No. 9 that ended this program. Then why not play the Beethoven work before the Kernis? Well, it seems an unwritten law of programming that the challenging contemporary work must be played before intermission to prevent a good part of the audience walking out. Let me say at once that the Kernis work, for me, held no terrors, but rather many pleasurable moments.

Quintal introduced the Kernis work by saying the Jasper players had met Kernis and they had worked on this quartet for years and decided to record it.

I could not help contrasting their intense involvement with this Kernis work with my reaction on hearing it for the first time. Well, the opening movement uses many older dance forms, and what was for me user friendly about this music was that one could distinguish an opening hectic section from a later elegant section, and recognize these themes when they recurred near the end of the movements. This is in sharp contrast to some contemporary quartets I have heard in recent years.

The long, slow movement (17 minutes), built upon two "Sarabande" segments, had moments of great emotional intensity, resembling slow movements of the late quartets of Beethoven. Despite its length, it held my attention and sustained my emotional involvement to its end.

Kernis' final movement, with its double and triple fugue, had frenetic and explosive moments, and after a reminiscence of the earlier elegant style, ended by sounding like an homage to the monumental four notes that open Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The Jasper players performed with heroic intensity, and we later learned that Quintal had broken a string during the finale and had to improvise on the fly.

Although this was my first time hearing this Kernis work, the final work on the program, Beethoven's Quartet No. 9, was the first string quartet I grew to love, about 65 years ago. Listening to the Jasper Quartet playing it with elegance and enthusiasm was for me pure joy. The pizzicato playing of Rachel Henderson Freivogel in the slow movement was especially memorable. Yes, Beethoven's dizzying fugal finale did resemble Kernis' final movement, or should it be the other way around?

The audience on the Foellinger stage gave the Jasper Quartet a well-deserved standing ovation.

One last curious observation: Among previous winners of the Cleveland Quartet Award were the Pacifica Quartet in 2003 and the Jupiter Quartet in 2007. Is there a pattern here? Will there be a Freivogel dynasty here?

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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