Avalon Quartet digs into mostly Russian program at Gottlieb Hall

Thu Feb 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The Avalon Quartet performed Wednesday night at Gottlieb Hall.

Chicago is, of course, one of the world’s major players in terms of classical music. But in the chamber music realm, it has been enriched by efforts made in DeKalb, 65 miles to the west.

For more than 35 years, beginning in 1970, the esteemed Vermeer String Quartet was a resident ensemble at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and performed regularly in Chicago.

The Vermeer disbanded in 2007, but NIU has maintained their resident artist slot, now filled by the Avalon String Quartet. On Wednesday night the quartet was back for the second concert of its 2009-10 Chicago series. Performing at Gottlieb Hall in the Merit School of Music and joined by distinguished cellist Yehuda Hanani, they offered a lively Russian-themed program of works by Prokofiev, Arensky and Beethoven.

Though the players are young, the Avalon is an ensemble with wide experience. Now celebrating their 15th anniversary, they have performed in the world’s major music venues, and their also hold a residency at Indiana University’s South Bend campus. Only two founding members—violinists Blaise Magnière and Marie Wang—remain. But with violist Anthony Devroye, who joined in 2004, and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee, arriving in 2006, the quartet maintains a remarkably cohesive voice.

Their tone–especially in Prokofiev’s Second String Quartet and Arensky’s Quartet for violin, viola and two cellos—sounded big and resonant. Gottlieb is a handsome, comfortable hall, intimate enough for chamber music but with a high ceiling that gives the music space to expand. Prokofiev and Arensky used traditional Russian melodies in their pieces, and the Avalon players dug into them with passion.

Written in 1941, Prokofiev’s Second String Quartet uses folk tunes from the Caucasus Mountain region where the composer relocated to escape the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The Avalon expertly caught the score’s unsettling mix of jaunty high spirits and off-kilter harmonies and rhythms. In the first bars of the Adagio, Lee’s richly textured cello set out a haunted song while the other instruments hovered above it like solicitous angels. In the final movement, Magnière’s violin took center stage with an exotic melody that was both wary and firmly carved.

Arensky’s Quartet, with three low-voiced instruments and a theme drawn from Russian Orthodox liturgy, was equally colorful. Hanani added a smooth, satiny voice that nicely complemented Lee’s more rough-hewn tone. The instrumental blend in the first movement was extraordinary. The quartet sounded like an other-worldly organ as it moved solemnly through the liturgical opening them.

The Beethoven Quartet, Op. 59, no. 2, one of three commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky and using a Russian folk tune, was neatly crafted. But it seemed to lack the spontaneity that enlivened the two previous works. The playing was careful, without the exciting sparks that come when colliding musical ideas set off high-energy chain reactions.

The Avalon String Quartet closes its series at Gottlieb Hall April 18 with a concert featuring clarinetist Anthony McGill. The program includes Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 127, and a new work by Harold Meltzer.  www.avalonquartet.com

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