What a difference a year makes! Last year, the first year of the Jupiter String Quartet's residence at the University of Illinois, it was the quartet that followed the Pacifica Quartet. This year, it is our quartet.
Our community has become home for violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough. The new guys on the block are now our gang!
Their first concert of this season opened with Joseph Haydn's String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3, "The Rider." Haydn's string quartets usually start programs as a sort of aperitif or icebreaker. But what if they are the most beautiful music on the whole program?
The Jupiters played the opening and closing movements with joyous enthusiasm. The nickname "Rider" comes mostly from the galloping rhythms of the finale. But the gem of this quartet is the lovely second movement. As the Jupiters spun out the beautiful melodies of this movement, the thought occurred to me, "This is so wonderful; why do we listen to any other music?"
But, like characters in a fairy tale, we cannot be happy all the time; we must learn the taste of sorrow. And Benjamin Britten's "String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 36" offers enough anguish and melancholy for a whole evening. Written in 1945, after Britten toured Germany and viewed the ravages of World War II, this piece presents an obstacle course from elation to despair and back again.
Britten is somewhat subversive in altering the usual balance of the quartet form. An opening allegro is followed by a hectic scherzo. Then comes the heart of the piece, a 17-minute "Chacony" which is a world unto itself. The Jupiters were playing this work in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth in 1913. And Britten in 1945 was commemorating the death in 1695 of the great English composer Henry Purcell at age 36.
The final "Chacony" (Purcell's spelling of "Chaconne") offers a maze-like set of variations, and along the way three solo cadenzas give some relief to the musical alterations of tension and release. The Jupiters played the Britten piece with strong dramatic effect, and the final brutally repeated chords gave much-needed emotional release for performers — and listeners.
In the second part of the program, the Jupiter Quartet was joined by the Jasper Quartet to play Felix Mendelssohn's masterpiece from his 16th year, the "Octet in E-Flat Major, Op. 20." The members of the Jasper group are J Freivogel, violin, Sae Chonabayashi, violin, Sam Quntal, viola, and Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello. The addition of four more players changed the sound of this octet from chamber music level to that of a small string orchestra.
The two quartets produced a rich-sounding first and second movements, but it is the third "Scherzo" movement which is one of the composer's masterpieces. The eight players performed it with feathery lightness. Then, the joyous finale swept on to a dazzling conclusion.
Whoops and bravos erupted from the audience, and on the return of the Jupiters and the Jaspers to the stage, the audience arose in appreciation.
Fair is fair, and Daniel McDonough told me recently that at their next joint performance, the quartets will reverse roles. The Jaspers will play first fiddle and the Jupiters will play second fiddle.
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 email@example.com.