Jupiter String Quartet makes a mixed debut at UC Presents’ Britten Festival

Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 2:24 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Jupiter String Quartet opened the Britten Festival for the University of Chicago Presents Friday night at Mandel Hall.
The Jupiter String Quartet opened the Britten Festival for the University of Chicago Presents Friday night at Mandel Hall.

Benjamin Britten is getting even more attention than usual around the world in this centennial year of the English composer’s birth.

Locally, no presenter is doing more for the Britten anniversary than the University of Chicago Presents. The venerable Hyde Park series opened its 70th season with the first concert of a five-week Britten Festival, leading off with the Jupiter String Quartet Friday night at Mandel Hall.

There were a few opening-night glitches, some unavoidable. The late warm spell made things uncomfortable for musicians and audience alike in the non-air-conditioned venue. And a transportation issue necessitated some late seating, including a woman who loudly complained about the long wait and argued with other audience members who told her to be quiet—all while the Jupiter musicians sat patiently on stage waiting for the brouhaha to end so they could begin the concert.

Friday night marked the series debut of the Jupiter String Quartet, new quartet-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Urbana, who performed Britten’s First and Third String Quartets. (Their predecessor ensemble in Urbana, the Pacifica Quartet, will tackle Britten’s Second String Quartet Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center.)

Formed in 2001, the Jupiter Quartet is an impressive ensemble. Even with the humidity in the hall, the musicians, led by the superb first violinist Nelson Lee, maintained enviable intonation and technical gleam throughout the program.

The close cohesion may be aided by the quartet’s familial connections: second violinist Megan Freivogel and violist Liz Freivogel are sisters, and cellist Daniel McDonough is Megan’s husband. When the couple shared a handkerchief to wipe off perspiration, McDonough elicited laughter by telling the audience, ‘It’s okay–we’re married.”

While the Jupiter players proved an assured group technically, interpretively their Britten performances Friday night proved a bit of a mixed bag.

Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 is an early work, outwardly traditional in its four movements yet with distinctive traits of the young composer’s individuality. Among them is the Andante opening with high mysterious passages for the upper strings against the pizzicato cello below.

Yet here the playing was far too present—not nearly the triple pianissimo Britten requests—and missed the strange otherworldly expression of the music. The Jupiter members attacked the ensuing Allegro with daunting ferocity, yet the playing seemed almost too overwrought for Britten.

Overall, the performance never seemed to jell as a unified whole. The musicians seemed more in synch with the melancholy rumination of the third-movement Andante and handled the challenges of the fiery closing movement well. Yet here and elsewhere the performance suffered from a straitened dynamic range and too little expressive detailing. Also the corporate sound of the group wasn’t flattered by the still-problematic Mandel acoustic, sounding hard-edged and even raw at times.

The Jupiter musicians sounded more comfortable in Britten’s Third Quartet. The composer’s last substantial work was written in 1975, a year before Britten’s death.

The playing here too sometimes seemed too loud when one wanted more nuanced expression. The musicians brought an edgy vehemence to the “Ostinato” second movement and plumbed the spare searching expression of the central “Solo” with hushed tendrils of tone at the coda.

The off-kilter rhythms of the antic “Burlesque” were thrown off with panache, and the valedictory element was unmistakable in the concluding Recitative and Passacagalia,” with the mystery and yearning palpable as the music slowly faded to silence.

Of the three works on the program the Jupiter musicians appeared most in synch with the ripe, richly upholstered music of Brahms. The group was joined by violist James Dunham for Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2, in a fluent and well-played reading that brought out the quintet’s energy, melancholy and pastoral charm.

The Pacifica Quartet will perform Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 and Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op.130, 3 p.m. Sunday at the Logan Center. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu

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