Alexander String Quartet members Zakarias Grafilo, Sandy Wilson, Frederick Lifsitz, and Paul Yarbrough (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)
Yesterday evening the Hotel Rex hosted the final program of the season to be presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) as part of its Salon Series. The featured artists were the members of the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson, all of whom are familiar to those who attend these Salon events regularly. On this particular occasion, however, ASQ spent only half of the program performing. The first half was taken by the Meraki Quartet, an ensemble of students at the Crowden School in Berkeley, which the Alexander musicians have been mentoring.
Meraki is an impressive group for any number of reasons other than having a major professional string quartet as their disposal as coaches. Of the four members only Isabelle Nichols plays a single instrument, the cello. The remaining members, Jun Yong Liu, Anna Renton, and Sofia Matthews, are all listed as playing both violin and viola, suggesting that there is considerable flexibility involving who leads from the first violin chair. Yesterday, however, Matthews was absent, since she was one of the participants in the SPHIX competition. As a result, Liu led the quartet, Renton played viola, and second violin was taken by Lifsitz.
This group opened the program with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/77 (“Emperor”) quartet in C major, the third of the last complete set of six string quartets that Haydn published, his Opus 76. The name comes from Haydn’s decision to write the second movement as a set of variations on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (God save Emperor Francis); but these days the theme is better known to many as the German national anthem (“Deutschlandlied”). Haydn may well be the most misunderstood member of the entire classical music canon; and, as the musicologist Frederick Dorian observed, much of that misunderstanding arises from giving him the nickname “Papa.” Any connotations of a “jolly good fellow” distract from the fact that, while Haydn definitely had a keen sense of wit, his approach to composition represented, as Dorian put it, “the spirit of progress, depth, and artistic courage.” Ludwig van Beethoven tends to be the composer credited as boldly adventurous; but that sense of adventure (not to mention its accompanying capacity for wit) may well have emerged from a keen understanding of Haydn’s productivity, which engendered a strong competitive spirit.
While it is certainly the case that Haydn’s approach to variations departs in many eyebrow-raising ways from what one usually expects of a set of variations (particularly for a patriotic theme), the other three movements of Hoboken III/77 are even more awe-inspiring. Most significant is Haydn’s ability to weave elaborate textures from threads of relatively short motifs. As a result, there is no real “leader” in the ensemble, since all four performers are busily weaving that texture on equal terms.
This poses a major challenge for performance. When the texture is that thick, with the attentive listener be able to sort out the threads; or will the whole affair reduce to an incoherent blur? Yesterday, there was no doubt that the Meraki players had all the necessarily skills to deliver the goods to that attentive listener. Indeed, Lifsitz as much as admitted that fitting into their approach to delivering that texture was no easy matter (even if he had a hand in leading them to acquire that skill). The result was a traversal across all four movements of the quartet that left “Papa” gathering dust on the shelf in favor of that “spirit of progress, depth, and artistic courage.” Haydn should have it this good more often.
ASQ then took over the rest of the program with a performance of Johannes Brahms’ first published string quartet, the first of the two (in the key of C minor) published as his Opus 51. Brahms’ first quartet, like his first symphony, came relatively late in his career in 1873. It had been preceded by a generous share of chamber music, particularly scored for piano and strings.
It is worth noting that, over the course of the nineteenth century, the compositional approach to texture became progressively thicker, which may be one reason why there was little interest in Haydn’s own brand of creativity at the time. However, by presenting Hoboken III/77 to set the context, the attentive listener could appreciate how much Brahms had learned from studying Haydn’s scores and how he could raise the Master’s practices to an entirely new level. Indeed, Brahms’ C minor quartet is so ambitious that it is performed far less than is merited, probably because less attentive listeners are easily disoriented by the precarious approach to melody and the elaborate interleaving of thematic elements.
Fortunately, ASQ has cultivated a solid command of everything Brahms packed into the four movements of this quartet. With that command they could deliver a performance in which those unfamiliar with the piece could begin to tease out just what made it tick. (I happened to be seated at an angle from which I could watch not only ASQ but also the Meraki students watching ASQ. They were clearly drawn into ASQ’s reading of Brahms to a profound depth, perhaps deep enough that they will eventually add this C minor quartet to their repertoire.) The overall result was an early evening of chamber music that reminded all present of just how rich the experience of listening to chamber music can be.