The Jupiter String Quartet gave a concert Nov. 29 in Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. It had been originally scheduled for Nov. 8, but that turned out to be Election Day, and it was widely assumed that many music lovers would be home, glued to the TV, as indeed I was. Well, a few more weeks was well worth the wait.
After 10 years as Quartet in Residence at the University of Illinois, violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough now seem to be part of our collective family. On Nov. 29, they were joined by Kenneth Olsen, who played the second cello part in Franz Schubert’s mighty String Quintet, Op. 163. Olsen joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005. He is also a member of the Chicago-based Civitas Ensemble.
The concert opened with Johannes Brahms’ String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 53, No. 2. Brahms’ hesitation about following in Beethoven’s mighty footsteps probably delayed the appearance of the Op. 53 string quartets. He began composing them around 1850, but after many revisions, the Quartet No. 2 was premiered in 1873 by the Joseph Joachim Quartet.
Joachim, a great violinist and longtime pal of Brahms, helped Brahms in the composition of this famous violin concerto. This bond of friendship was reflected by Brahms in his first movement quotation of Joachim’s musical motif, the three notes FAE, which meant (in German) “Frei aber einsam,” (“Free but lonely”), and this motto was contrasted with Brahms’ motto, FAF, “Frei aber froh” (“Free but glad”).
The first movement of this Brahms quartet opens in a mood of quiet melancholy, and later there is an intimate section with a lovely floating melody. The climactic ending of this movement brought applause. The second movement highlighted the outstanding ensemble playing of the quartet. This highly personal music seemed like speech, which is almost too intimate to be spoken.
Schubert’s String Quintet was one of his last masterpieces, completed a few weeks before his death at 31 on Nov. 19, 1828. Its premiere had to wait until 1850. The rediscovery of so many of his masterpieces decades after his death seems to me a musical miracle.
This quintet is grand in conception. In its considerable length, it tries to convey a wide array of emotions, from courage in the face of obstacles, from the depths of sorrow to the heights of joy.
The quartet and cellist Olsen gave a magnificent performance. The special pleasure of watching a live performance is that one can see what the two cellists are doing and to understand why Schubert chose to employ a second cellist.
In the famous slow movement, Olson’s role was to provide a strong rhythmic impulse with a pizzicato note. Some commentators have said that in this movement, “Time seems to stand still.” Yes, but that pizzicato note is the constant reminder that “Time’s winged chariot” is indeed measuring the music and life itself.
It is said that pianist Artur Rubinstein asked for this movement to be played at his funeral. Indeed, the music is sorrowful, but its greatness was to project the beauty of great sorrow, in giving it a higher meaning. It occurred to me that for the unmystical, it is as close as one can come to a mystical experience.
In sum, this is likely to be for me the most memorable concert thus far given by the Jupiter Quartet. At Schubert’s powerful finale, the audience stood and cheered.
After the new year comes, a guest string quartet, called “Aizuri,” will give a concert at 3 p.m. Feb. 19 at Foellinger. They will interchange pieces by Schubert with modern compositions and conclude with Schubert’s famous “Death and the Maiden” Quartet.
“Aizuri” is a style of mostly blue Japanese woodblock printing, noted for its moody expressiveness.