Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Aeolus Quartet

Oct. 26, Richmond Public Library

The Aeolus Quartet – violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro, violist Gregory Luce and cellist Alan Richardson – opened the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia’s 2013-14 season, “Aspects of Time,” in performances over the weekend at the Ellen Glasgow House and in the Gellman Room of the Richmond Public Library.

I was unable to attend the Oct. 25 Glasgow House gala because it conflicted with the eighth blackbird-Agua Dulce Dance Theatre evening of premieres at the University of Richmond (scroll down for review); but did make it to a sampler of string quartet history that the Aeolus staged before a full house at the library.

The sampler included movements of the three works played the night before – Haydn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 76, No. 5; Beethoven’s Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 (first of the “Razumovsky” set); and Christopher Theofanidis’ “Ariel Ascending” – as well as bits of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6, and Sibelius’ “Voces intimae” (“Intimate Voices”) Quartet and “Black Bend,” a miniature tone poem by Dan Visconti.

The ensemble, which performed for the Chamber Music Society two years ago, nicely balances warm, robust tone with sharp focus and high energy. Its members also are audience-friendly musical guides in their spoken introductions. Adding to their local appeal, cellist Richardson is Richmond-bred.

The Haydn and Beethoven selections gave sound evidence that the Aeolus’ musicians, like many young string players, have absorbed the technical and interpretive lessons of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement, without going full tilt into its more provocative or pedantic practices.

In the slow movement of the Sibelius, a wrenching memento of the composer’s battle with throat cancer, the group reverted to a more traditionally romantic string style. And the foursome proved expert in the more virtuosic, color-centric and effects-laden techniques of contemporary music in the Theofanidis and Visconti pieces.

The finale of “Ariel Ascending” showcased the Aeolus’ technique as the players negotiated its jittery figures and generally frenetic energy (Ariel’s ascent doesn’t quite break the speed of sound, but comes close). Violinists Tavani and Shapiro audibly relished the nature and train-whistle effects in “Black Bend,” Visconti’s evocation of a famous train wreck on a river bend in northern Ohio.

“Black Bend,” which appears to exist in string quartet, quintet and orchestra versions, is a bluesy delight clearly indebted to country-bluegrass fiddling – the whistle effects recall Lester Flatt’s in the Flatt & Scruggs rendition of “The Wreck of the Old 97.”

Visconti’s 7-minute piece is one of the finest examples of folksy classicism this side of Peter Schickele. You can see and hear the Aelous perform a bit of it here: