John Frayne | Jupiter String Quartet ends season on a dramatic note

John Frayne | Jupiter String Quartet ends season on a dramatic note

The Jupiter String Quartet, the University of Illinois School of Music's quartet-in-residence, gave its final concert of the season on April 4. Its program offered powerful playing of highly dramatic music.

Opening with Dimitri Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8, a work rapidly becoming a 20th-century classic, the concert continued with Arnold Schoenberg's response to the crisis years of World War II, and the concert ended with a quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven that ushered in the explosive works of Beethoven's middle period.

The music offered on this program showed how much impact a composition can have when it is "about" something. We may like to believe that "pure music" is the highest form of that art, but music allied to a text or a cataclysmic event can focus a response into a white heat. The historical trigger for the tangled knot of emotion in Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8 was his visit to Dresden in 1960 in connection with his writing music for a film about the search after World War II for famous paintings lost during the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 by the British and American air forces.

Shostakovich had written stirring music celebrating the Russian response to the German invasion of June 1941, but the sight of ruined Dresden evoked in him violent anguish at the ultimate costs of war, any war. Thus the 8th Quartet is a work of extremes, and the Jupiter members expressed brilliantly the mercurial changes in this work from dizzying speed to elegiac stillness.

Schoenberg's music is a hard sell. Lauded by the enlightened elite as one of the most significant composers of the 20th century, he wrote music, of his atonal period, which is generally avoided by the majority of lovers of classical music. But the Schoenberg work that was played at this concert had one strong point in its favor. Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte for String Quartet, Piano and Narrator" has a clear subject, the poet Lord Byron's denunciation of Napoleon, and that gives the Schoenberg piece a strong emotional point of view.

Before it was played, UIUC Professor William Kinderman explained the historical background to Byron's poem on the occasion of Napoleon's 1814 defeat and forced exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Kinderman said that Schoenberg found in Byron's poem 170 shades of irony and sarcasm, and this work aimed that irony and sarcasm at Schoenberg's real target, Adolph Hitler, then at the zenith of his power. Kinderman's applying the message of Byron's poem to our current political situation was received with applause.

While Schoenberg's "Ode" has clear dramatic impact, his music is fiendishly difficult to play, and the performance by the Jupiter Quartet and pianist Timothy Ehlen was of the highest professional standards. The text was delivered by Lisa Gayle Dixon, associate professor of theater at UIUC and a stage director of wide experience, with great clarity and emotional impact. But Schoenberg did not make Dixon's task an easy one. The strong sounds of the musical lines frequently overwhelmed the spoken text.

Also, the setting of a poem of 171 lines (in 19 stanzas) in a setting lasting 16 minutes inevitably means that some portions pass at express speeds, past us listeners standing on the local platform. That said, Dixon's voice soared triumphantly at the end with Byron's praise of George Washington, as the musicians projected a consoling major chord in the key of E-flat.

There is an ironic footnote to Schoenberg's composition. After Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, raised another army and marched to his defeat at Waterloo, Byron reverted to his early admiration for Napoleon and wrote poems praising him. The poems were published anonymously as "translated from the French"! Needless to say, Schoenberg never ceased loathing Hitler.

As a beautiful melody began, the Beethoven "Razumovsky" Quartet No. 7 in the second half of the Jupiter's program, I think I can be forgiven for a sigh of relief. This marvelous 1806 Quartet No. 7, with its rich and elaborate expansion of the quartet form, has been paralleled by critics with Beethoven's 1805 Symphony No. 3, "Eroica," which epitomized Beethoven's own admiration and disillusionment with Napoleon.

The Jupiter Quartet gave a richly enjoyable performance of this treasurable work in which Beethoven's musical wizardy in thematic development in the two opening movements is matched by a profoundly moving emotion in the third movement. The finale, with its speeded-up Russian theme, ended with an explosive joke, which was followed by the strongest applause, and upon the Jupiter Quartet members' second curtain call, the audience rose in appreciation.

Upon arriving at Krannert on Thursday, I heard in the lobby a delightful playing of Paul Reade's "Victorian Kitchen Garden" suite by Colby Spengler, clarinet, a student of J. David Harris, and Noel Wan, a student of Ann Yeung. The performance was part of Graduate Student Appreciation Week.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.