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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Tokyo String Quartet's Songs Celebrate Brahms

Author: Laura Rockefeller

An excited murmur ran through the audience as the house lights dimmed and four men in dapper black suits walked quietly onto the stage. The notes that soon began to dance off the bows of the performers cast a spell of enchanted silence over all of the auditors in the hall.

It was almost impossible to believe that such a rich resonance was coming from the small group of unassuming men seated on the stage. The music from the four small instruments succeeded somehow in swelling and filling the entire space with a sound that was equally touching in its playful and in tender moments.

Such was the feeling in the room last Friday when the Tokyo String Quartet performed in the Center for the Arts Concert Hall.

The Quartet, which was founded more than 30 years ago, is a world-renowned chamber ensemble. Although the program that the Quartet presented at Middlebury College was entirely Brahms, its repertoire ranges from works for string quartet by classical composers such as Mozart and Schubert to pieces by more contemporary composers such as Bartok and Ravel.

Along with its remarkable history of live performances, the Quartet has released more than 30 recordings and has been featured on television in programs like PBS's "Great Performances" and "CBS Sunday Morning."

This particular concert was part of the Quartet's plan to perform all of Brahms' chamber works and string quartets. Included in the program were Brahms' "String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 67," his "String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2" and the "Viola Quintet in G Major, Op. 111" for which the regular Quartet was joined by viola player Jesse Levine. This meant that all of the pieces in the concert were of one style, but the spirit of the performers ensured that the program did not become monotonous.

In the first act, "Quartet in B-flat Major" was well juxtaposed with "Quartet in A minor" since the former had a very playful and vivacious feel to it, especially the "Vivace" movement, while the latter was more sentimental and lilting. The soft quality of some of the music as it floated out into the darkened auditorium made it easily understandable why "Lullaby" is one of Brahms' most well-known pieces. While it can express great exhilaration, much of his music, especially that performed in this concert, has a wonderfully soothing effect on the listener.

There was hardly an empty seat in the Concert Hall, even in the balcony, and the audience reaction to the performance seemed to be universally positive. Some audience members gave the Quartet a standing ovation after only the first act. Excitement and anticipation had been running high before the performance in the lobby outside the Concert Hall and the tables in front of Rehearsal's Café where people were buzzing with discussions of their expectations of the concert.

It seemed that the performance lived up to everyone's expectations, with the conversation in the lobby during intermission even more animated than it had been before hand, if that is possible.

The fact that two performers were relatively new to the Quartet did not seem to create any problems in the polish of the performance. Violinist Mikhail Kopelman did not join the group until 1996 and cellist Clive Greensmith only came on board in 1999, but there was no doubt that the group worked beautifully together.

The dialogue between the various instruments that took place in several movements seemed completely natural and almost effortless.

At one point the viola would have a solo and then the focus would shift to the cello almost without the audience noticing the transition until it was already made.

Thoroughly grounded by the Quartet's successful performance at the College, The Washington Post's appraisal of the Quartet said that, "If the Tokyo String Quartet isn't the world's greatest chamber music ensemble, it's hard to imagine which group is." With their four Stradivarius, they completely charmed their audience.