The Asheville Chamber Music Series concludes its 2011 season on Friday, March 25, with the Miro String Quartet from Austin, Texas. The program includes “Quartett-satz” by Franz Schubert; String Quartet No.1, Op. 51 in C minor, by Johannes Brahms; and, departing the Romantic period with a piece from 1991, Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 5. The concert takes place at 8 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, at the corner of Charlotte Street and Edwin Place.
“Quartett-satz,” or quartet movement, is just that — a single movement, the first (and a fragment of another) of the typically four-movement form. Begun in late 1820, the quartet in C minor remained unfinished upon Schubert’s death in 1828 at the age of 31. Schubert composed nearly 1,000 pieces in his short life, including 10 symphonies (one unfinished), 20 chamber works, dozens of works for piano four-hands and hundreds of songs for voice and solo piano. What Schubert left undone seems almost as significant as what he achieved. As it says on his tombstone in Vienna: “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes.” The Quartett-satz, considered a mature, representative piece, is an example of Schubert’s power: lithe and fluttering at one juncture, impassioned and furious at the next.
“My love for Schubert is a serious one, precisely because it is not a passing fancy,” said Johannes Brahms, born five years after Schubert’s death. Throughout his life, Brahms expressly — and demonstrably — admired the Austrian composer. Along with Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, Brahms played a considerable part in popularizing Schubert through performances and new publications of the composer’s work. Brahms was nearly as prolific as Schubert (albeit he lived 33 years longer), with four major orchestral works, the thunderous “German Requiem,” over 200 songs and more than a dozen chamber works in his oeuvre.
Although confined to two violins, a viola and a cello, the C Minor quartet confirms Schumann’s wry comment that Brahms’ chamber works were “symphonies in disguise.” Brahms did not publish his first string quartet until after age 40, about which he said, “It took Mozart a whole lot of trouble to compose six lovely quartets. So, I will try my hardest to turn out a couple fairly well done. They shall not fail you.” The opening strains of the second movement, with the four instruments in harmonic unison, will fail nobody. The theme is heart-rending; it makes you feel like you’re in love, which you may be — that it is to say, a painful bliss, a near-crisis of evocation. This piece is often compared to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Piano Sonata No. 8, the “Pathétique,” both of which share the key of C minor.
A line from “Lullaby of the Onion” by poet Miguel Hernandez is a good place to start when approaching Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 5. “The onion is frost / shut in and poor.” The quartet, in five movements, maintains a chilled timbre initially, each instrument layered upon the other and spiking into appearance like clusters of hoarfrost. The somewhat diffuse fourth movement has a lulling effect that is swiftly uplifted in the profound culmination of the fifth and final section, a conclusion that is no less than triumphant. It is a blossoming, a release.
Since forming at the Oberlin Conservatory in 1995, the Miro String Quartet has earned many distinctions for its energetic performances and unique collaborations, including a concert with Scottish marimba player Colin Curri in February. The Austin Chronicle rated a Miro performance No. 4 in the Top 10 Dance and Classical Music Treasures of 2010, saying “its reading of Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 5 was a revelation: epic yet deeply personal — an intimate quest.” The ensemble was the first chamber group to receive the Avery Fisher Career Grant from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a $25,000 prize “based on excellence alone,” according the foundation’s website. See this video of the quartet performing under the tutelage of the late (and utterly legendary) violinist Isaac Stern. For more reviews, videos and audio clips, visit http://www.miroquartet.com.
The Asheville Chamber Music Series, now in its 58th season, has a fascinating history. The late Joe Vandewart, a refugee from Nazi Germany, founded the organization in 1952 with the help of 10 local classical music fans. According to the Asheville Chamber Music website, “After setting up a table in the lobby of the Battery Park Hotel, the group quickly found 800 people willing to pay the $4 price for a season subscription for ‘an unspecified number of concerts.’ ” Under the auspices of the music series, an astounding number of world-famous ensembles and soloists have visited Asheville, including the Budapest, Emerson, Fine Arts, Julliard and Kodaly Quartets. The Amadeus Quartet — one of the most renowned ensembles of the 20th century — performed in the first season and seven times thereafter; preeminent flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal performed in the series as well. The significance of these musicians cannot be overstated.
But enough history. This concert is happening now. Beyond the insistent antiquity of the form and its seemingly prohibitive sophistication, classical music is ultimately just good music, however elaborate its scope. The Miro String Quartet, with its relatively young members and reputation for daring, vibrant programs, is a great example of the sheer vitality possible with classical music. The intimate, acoustic bowl that is the Unitarian Church is a great place to see this vitality in evidence, up close.
For more information and tickets, visit http://www.ashevillechambermusic.org or call 259-3626.