Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review: Guarneri String Quartet plays Kodaly and stars in documentary

By guest reviewer Aaron Berenbach

It is a rare treat to experience the top echelon of classical musicians, and the treat becomes all the rarer as the Guarneri String Quartet nears the end of its 45 year reign as one of the premiere string quartets in the world. Luckily, this ensemble has come to Portland as part of the Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival to display the talents that have led to such a long and revered career.

Friday’s concert at the Whitsell Auditorium was an intriguing glimpse into the workings of the quartet as the audience got the chance to listen to one of the quartet’s favorite pieces as well as hear the players give their thoughts on their experiences over the years. The evening was rounded out by a screening of Alan Miller’s High Fidelity, a documentary made about the Guarneri String Quartet in 1989.

The quartet chose to play Zoltan Kodaly’s String Quartet No. 2 Op. 10 and gave a superb, if somewhat relaxed performance. The ease with which the performers played speaks to the combined years of experience they bring to each performance. The acoustics of the room acted to soften the sharp edges of the higher registers, but each instrument was clearly heard in the type of musical conversation that has prompted celebrated composers to write some of their greatest works in this format.

Not as familiar with the works of Kodaly as the works of his Hungarian contemporary, Bela Bartok, this reviewer was impressed with the ability of Kodaly to effectively use a classical form such as a sonata structure yet imbue it with a life and vitality that is at once unique and yet strangely familiar. Thematic material arises, is developed, returns, yet along the way unexpected twists and turns send the piece careening off into uncharted territory.

Emerging on stage to raucous applause, the Guarneri Quartet was gracious and in good humor. The atmosphere created by the mixed media format prompted an intimacy with the performers that lasted past their departure from the stage and through the film. The documentary downplayed the glamour often attached to being a professional musician. Instead it focused on the group dynamics between players, disagreements during rehearsals, family life, travels and tribulations, and the reality of living a life that involves at least 100 performances per year, spread out all over the globe. Rather than dispelling the mystique of professional musicianship, the film created an even greater admiration for those who can live that life for a decade, let alone those rare few who can make an entire career of it.

Coming to the study of music only recently, this reviewer feels lucky to have had the opportunity to see the Guarneri String Quartet live and, as a fully immersed member of the short attention span digital age, feels especially lucky to have seen them in this format. Hearing this ensemble's music-making, the words of each member, and experiencing a little slice of the performers' lives served to increase the impression created by each member's skill individually and as a performing group. Over their long and illustrious career, the Guarneri String Quartet has exposed generation after generation to the great compositions of the existing quartet repertoire as well as those of more modern composers. This ensemble deserves the highest accolades and will remain one of the premiere string quartets long past the final time they step from the stage.


Aaron Berenbach is studying music composition with Bob Priest at Marylhurst University and pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter/composer/teacher.

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