The Blair String Quartet is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Nashville should be proudand grateful too. The quartet will celebrate by offering us a present: Friday evening in the Blair Recital Hall, they will play an early Beethoven quartet, the Fourth Quartet of Béla Bártok, and the Quartet in F by Maurice Ravel. And we are all invited to a reception afterward. If their past is anything to reckon by, the celebration will be a fine one.
A string quartet, some say, is the ideal chamber group; its sound is like no other. Each member of the violin family has its own tone-color. And their combination in a string quartet intensifies that sonority, from a delicate, tremulous softness to a jagged, aggressive might. But playing in such an ensemble requires enormous skill. Instruments in today’s fiddle family do not have frets; players have to build into their hands, via eons of practice time, the precise location of each tone. Complicating matters even further is the tremendous amounts of practice required to blend four separate instruments together into one near-flawless whole.
All of which is to say, you need superior playersand the Blair String Quartet are certainly tops. The current edition of the BSQ has maybe the best sound everthough earlier editions weren’t bad either. The quartet began in 1968, when Blair Academy was at Peabody. John F. (Del) Sawyer, then dean at Blair, decided to establish a quartet after witnessing Wilda Tinsley’s genius as a teacher. (”She grew violinists like flowers,“ he recalls.) His goal was to create a group around which the Academy’s program in teaching and performance could revolve. A good idea, but the actual quartet lacked continuity, Sawyer says, because players were drawn away, sometimes to larger and more prestigous places. One former player, Stephen Clapp, is now dean of students at Juilliard. Another, Jean Dane, left Blair to join the Composer’s Quartet. Others left because they chose to pursue destinies as players rather than as teachers. Members of the Blair Quartet are expected to do both.
When Peabody closed, Blair became independent for a time before merging with Vanderbilt in 1981. In the years since, however, the quartet has become one of the best anywhere. The current players have been together for a decadesince John Kochanowsky, the violist, joined in 1987. Grace Mihi Bahng, the cellist, joined in 1984, violinist Cornelia Heard in 1982. Violinist Christian Teal is the senior member, dating from 1972. All have solid credentials, but though credentials may get you a hearing, you have to play to stay. And these players do play.
They play repertory reaching from Haydn and Mozart, who defined the quartet as we know it, to the contemporary cutting edge. They have been praised by reviewers all over the nationincluding one who hated a contemporary piece they premiered but applauded their mastery of it. Time magazine, meanwhile, delighted in their performance with Bela Fleck of the Quintet for Banjo and String Quartet, composed by Fleck and Edgar Meyer.
This BSQ plays it alland very wellwhatever the style. The Haydn and Mozart quartets, lucid, poised, often witty, proportioned like Monticello, demand elegant control. Late Beethoven, meanwhile, demands strength, stamina, and unfailing ears. In his Big Fugue (opus 133), four athletic voices dance on a broad staircase, climbing up, leaping down, twisting, each dancing the same pattern, sometimes twice as fast as others, sometimes half as fast, sometimes in reverse. This fugue is arguably the greatest technical challenge in the repertory, and this quartet has met the challenge.
Another kind of challenge are the Bartók quartets. Their salient feature is a driving, irregular ”motoristic“ rhythm with accents in unexpected places. But maybe the crucial thing is what Bartók makes of melody and harmonic texture. He takes his tunes from Eastern European folk music, based on unfamiliar scales. And he replaces familiar harmonies with less familiar onesfor example, using the ”jazz octave“ or major seventh instead of the familiar octave. He often uses half-step ”grinds“ (e.g., a B-natural together with the adjacent C) and ”clusters“ of three notes side by side (e.g., B-C-D). Even played accurately, Bartók is not relaxing stuff. His music often gives us what one critic has called a ”strange, unpredictable violence of barbaric impulses“something the 20th century still has plenty of. Bartók’s quartets are King Lear, not Seinfeld. But to their credit, the BSQ are at home on either stage.
The players have recently done all the Beethoven quartets, and all the Bartók, and they expect to do both sets again soon. They have playedand do playa lot of the repertory before and after these composers. Plans are still a-making, but the quartet also plans to play, between now and the millennium, programs featuring the major composers of the 20th century. And they often join forces with soloistsvoice, oboe, flute, clarinet, piano, banjoand with other ensembles, our own symphony among them, to play a wide gamut of other music.
This weekend, they will play early Beethoven, who may be mistaken for Haydn; at this point in his career, he was far from becoming the titan whose deafness drove him into his own molten core. Conversely, Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, also on the program, is not music to burp the baby by. It’s a powerful and cathartic emblem of much of our time.
Ravel, meanwhile, has some touches of ”impressionism“music that makes us think of Monet. But his signatures are clean melodic contours, distinct rhythms, and firm structures grounded in classicism. In truth, it’s Debussy who bespeaks Monet; Ravel recalls Josef Albers’ ”Homage to the Square,“ a series of prints in which three squares of solid color make a Chinese box, smaller within larger. What matters in these compositions, graphic and musical, is how what goes with what. The BSQ understands that.
The quartet’s most recent recording, issued three years ago by Warner Bros., remains a testament to their versatility. The Blair String Quartet: From Mozart to Ravel is a sampler of movements, not entire works, spanning the repertory. There is no Bartók, no ”late“ Beethovenalthough they do include the Presto from op. 130. They play some Haydn, Mendelssohn, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart. They include also the Vif et agité movement from the Ravel they will play this weekendand the liveliness and agitation are wonderfully precise.
All 10 tracks are masterful, but my favorite is the Notturno from the second quartet of Alexander Borodin, which ”mature“ listeners will hear as ”This Is My Beloved“ from Kismet. If any music teeters over a pit of smarm, this music does. But the BSQ, as nervy as Indiana Jones, carries Borodin to safety across a slick footlog. But then, that’s the wonderful thing about this groupthey are always reliable, always spot on. But don’t take my word for it. Go hear them for yourself.
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