John Frayne: Jupiters' esoteric concert offers enjoyable moments
The Jupiter Quartet concert on Jan. 30 leaned somewhat to the novel and the esoteric.
After a somewhat enigmatic Quartet No. 3 by Benjamin Britten, the Jupiter group played "Ramshackle Songs" by Dan Visconti, a 2009 work commissioned by the Fromm Foundation for the Jupiter Quartet. Then, on the second part of the program, the group offered one of the great masterpieces of the string quartet form, Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 14, "Death and the Maiden."
Britten's quartet, Op. 95, written in 1975, near the end of his life, was the composer's swan song. His first two numbered quartets were written in 1941 and '45, so the third was a return to the form after 30 years.
In five movements with descriptive titles, Britten expressed moods ranging from resigned meditation to near brutal sarcasm. In a highly emotional performance, the Jupiters were able to enjoy solo and duet moments along the way.
Meg Freivogel, second violin, contrasted her tone in the first movement with that of violist Liz Freivogel, her sister. And later, first violinist Nelson Lee was paired in duet with cellist Daniel McDonough. In the "Solo, very calm" middle movement came a moment of extraordinary beauty, like the sound of rippling water.
The final movement had a reference to the city of Venice in its title ("La serenissima"). Britten wrote the quartet there, and one commentator says that the opening recitative of this movement quotes themes from Britten's last opera, "Death in Venice." This last movement, in its swings of mood, fading away into silence, came across as a very touching farewell to life and music.
Before the performance of Visconti's work, McDonough gave a witty and eloquent introduction. We were told that Visconti wrote this piece as a tribute to the rough and tumble life of "Tin Pan Alley" in New York, the center of American popular music of the earlier decades of the 20th century.
As Visconti's music unfolded, we were exposed, in 11 sections, to a series of parodies of popular song styles and effects, especially the stamping of feet by the quartet members at the more uproarious moments.
It was good fun, and the Jupiter members performed it with good-natured gusto. But I have the following reservations. If I had not been given all the introductory information about this piece, would I have guessed about its origins in "Tin Pan Alley"?
The work did not quote any "old time" tunes, but rather evoked the ghost of them. The sections were played without pause. I was able to follow the opening sections, but soon I became lost. Later on, how was one to distinguish, for example, "All Chips" from "Danderhead"?
Perhaps, if I were to hear this piece again, I would adjust my expectations to fit what the piece actually does. Some members of the audience reacted with strong enthusiasm.
After intermission, I heard the resounding opening of "Death and the Maiden" with great relief, and the lovely lyrical theme of the first movement was like manna from heaven. The Jupiter group gave a splendid performance of this masterpiece.
The opening two movements, especially the variations on Schubert's song, were deeply moving. I find that the scherzo and finale movements are not quite up to the two opening movements, but the finale provided the Jupiters with a rousing climax, which produced cheers from the audience and a standing ovation. You can hear Gustav Mahler's string orchestra arrangement of the "Death and the Maiden" quartet at the Feb. 21 Prairie Ensemble concert at the Orpheum, 346 N. Neil St., C.
Upcoming concert in the morning
The Jupiter Quartet will perform in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at 10 a.m. March 15. A light breakfast will be available earlier in the lobby.
On the program are two Ludwig van Beethoven quartets, No. 2 in G, of the Op. 18 group, and No. 12, in E-Flat Major, Op. 127.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.