Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Escher Gets by with a Little Help from a Friend

Escher String Quartet members Pierre Lapointe, Danbi Um, Adam Barnett-Hart, and Brook Speltz (photograph by Sarah Skinner, from the Escher Web site)

The Escher String Quartet was founded in 2005 by violist Pierre Lapointe, while he was a student at the Manhattan School of Music. He recruited violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie and cellist Andrew Janss, all of whom were fellow students. The group got off to a good start, since, by the following year, they were part of Chamber Music Society Two, the “farm team” for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. As might be guessed, the group has enjoyed the benefit of some pretty high-powered mentoring; and their relationship with David Finckel and Wu Han led to their being invited to perform out here in the Music@Menlo series.

Last night Escher closed out the Summer Series of Chamber Music San Francisco, giving the last of the series’ three concerts in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The group has undergone several personnel changes since its founding. As of last night, Wu Jie’s second violin chair has been taken over by Danbi Um; and Brook Speltz is now the group’s cellist. The major work on the program was Franz Schubert’s D. 956 quintet in C major with local cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau taking the second cello chair.

Sadly, it was hard to avoid feeling that Escher is a group that still needs mentoring. Fortunately, Fonteneau was well-equipped for that task. Not only is he one of our city’s most skilled cellists but he is also a consummate pedagogue, both as a cello teacher and as a coach for chamber music students at SFCM. Even without noting that Fonteneau was situated in the middle of the group (violins to his right and the other low strings to his left), it was hard to avoid the feeling that he was leading the entire group from the bottom line of the score page, so to speak.

D. 956 is one of those pieces that is representative of what Robert Schumann called Schubert’s “heavenly length.” There are no end of arresting moments; and, if they do not literally bring the flow of the entire work to a halt, they certainly merit lingering. The problem, of course, is that inferior performances tend to linger too long; and “heavenly length” turns into “endless bore.” Having been fortunate enough to listen to Fonteneau play this work with other groups (including at least one other professional string quartet), I feel he has a scrupulous command when it comes to keeping the pace “heavenly.” Last night’s pacing could not have been better, and I am inclined to believe that Fonteneau was the “prime mover” of the overall pace.

I make this claim on the basis of the first half of the program, which consisted entirely of Alexander Borodin’s second string quartet in D major. This quartet is probably best known for themes that were subsequently turned into songs for the musical Kismet. The result is that, for many, the piece has a pleasant air of familiarity. Escher’s account, on the other hand, had little ring of familiarity and not much that was pleasant.

The overall experience was one of a group in which each individual was still trying to nail down command of his/her respective part. Moments when the ensemble summoned up a convincing group sound were few and far between, suggesting that the players were looking at their parts rather than listening to each other. Indeed, the intonation almost suggested that each player had internalized the pitches of the twelve chromatic notes on a piano keyboard and was summoning up the necessary pitches as the printed score pages dictated. Admittedly, Borodin’s quartet is not exactly an epitome of fine quartet composition; but it still allows for an account far more convincing than the one Escher summoned up last night.

My only previous account with Escher was with their recordings of the string quartets of Alexander von Zemlinsky, which were released by Naxos. At that time the only member of the group that was not a founder was cellist Dane Johansen. I was impressed with the recordings, but the impression had as much to do with listening to Zemlinsky’s music as to how it was being interpreted. Nevertheless, one might make a case that those recordings were of a group closer in spirit to Lapointe’s “founding vision.” The current membership runs the risk of a group that sounds more like four independent musicians than like a string quartet.

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