John Frayne: Jupiter Quartet's latest performance among its best ever

John Frayne: Jupiter Quartet's latest performance among its best ever

On April 23, the Jupiter Quartet, in Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, gave one of the best chamber music concerts of its seven-year stay as quartet-in-residence at the University of Illinois.

Impassioned performing of relatively seldom-played quartets of Felix Mendelssohn and Antonin Dvorak was matched by some of the most attractive contemporary music I have recently heard, and that was in a recent quartet by Kati Agócs.

The Jupiters, Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel (violins), Liz Freivogel (viola) and Daniel McDonough (cello) seemed to be in top form as they gave a highly charged reading to Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13. This work, written in 1827, when the composer was 18, shows his deep study of Ludwig van Beethoven's famous, late quartets.

The new music on the program was the Quartet No. 2 by Kati Agócs (born 1975). The work's title, "Imprimatur," is a Latin word meaning "Let it be Printed." Apparently, Agósc wanted to stress the concept "imprinted" rather than the usual use of that word in Catholic books, meaning "no religious errors."

Agócs' work was in seven sections, played without pause. This quartet had much energy, and its almost vocal urgency must owe much to Agócs' background as a singer. My notes include the descriptions "lyrical," "ecstatic" and "emotive yearnings."

Agócs' quartet had a direct appeal for me, but she gave some puzzling, esoteric titles to her sections.

No. 3, "Enraptured Troping," employed the term "troping, " which can mean the "turning" of something personal into the canonic ritual music of the Middle Ages.

The title of the 4th movement, called "Meditation-Crystal Chains," gave me pause until I learned, through Google, that crystals to aid meditation were indeed for sale on the internet, and some of them, in the form of necklaces and bracelets, are called "chains." As usual with pieces with many short movements, played without pause, I soon suspected that I was lost, but No. 5 in this piece, called "Wild Dance," was indeed wild, and let me know that I was in the right place. The Jupiters gave "Imprimatur" their all, and the applause at the work's conclusion was very strong.

After intermission, came Dvorak's Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op.106, which was composed in 1895, just after his return from America to his native Bohemia. This is a large-scale work, and the Jupiters played it superbly, especially the haunting slow movement, which provoked comparisons for me with the famous "Goin' Home" movement of the "New World Symphony."

Foellinger was packed on April 27 for the season-ending concert by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Alltop. This was one of the best attended C-U Symphony concerts in my memory.

All in all, the concert was a blast, in decibels to be sure! The audience found in Gustav Holst's "The Planets" and John Williams' "Star Wars Suite" something to cheer for, and cheer they did. Every "Planet" segment was applauded, and only one section of the "Star Wars Suite" was not applauded. Perhaps fatigue was setting in.

The Holst piece is a magnificent composition, and the C-U Symphony, strongly urged on by Alltop, gave an alternating moving and exciting reading of it.

The brass and percussion were especially active and brilliant. By section 4, "Jupiter," I mused that it could not get better than this, but the following movements proved me wrong. By the time the final section, "Neptune, the Mystic" arrived, I wondered where the women's chorus, which would sing a wordless finale, was hiding. And then, "Lo and behold!," the serene voices of the UI Women's Glee Club came blissfully from the very topmost rows of the balcony. Ably prepared by Andrea Solya, this chorus contributed that special mood of infinite space that Holst gave to his masterpiece.

Two winners of the Music Alive Overture Competition had their works performed. The piece by first winner Maya Benyas, 14 years old, was "Fantasy House Overture," inspired by the Harry Potter books, and this work molded charming tunes into a well-structured composition. Second winner Roger Zare's Overture "Strontium Red" took its name from an ingredient in fireworks, and explosive this short piece indeed turned out to be.

In 1977, when the film "Star Wars" first appeared, there was swift comment on John Williams' inspired borrowings from Holst's "The Planets." Hence, programming Holst and Williams together, cheek to jowl, had its dangers. But, at this concert, the enthusiastic response to the "Star Wars" music left no doubt as to the perennial appeal of Williams' music.

Conductor Alltop has a touch of P.T. Barnum in his bag of tricks, so I was not shocked to see him come out dressed as Darth Vader to conduct the "Star Wars" Suite, but this may have been the first performance of this music conducted with a blue-lit "Star Wars" sword as baton.

The "Star Wars" title music was a stroke of genius, but I am not sure I want to hear it repeated as often as it is in this suite. After it rang out for the last, decibel-exploding time, the audience cheered lustily. The Force was clearly with them. By the way, yesterday, May 4, was Star Wars Day.

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.

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