Quatuor Diotima opens French festival with sterling Debussy and a quiet blast of modernism

Thu Oct 27, 2022 at 1:28 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Quatuor Diotima performed Wednesday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center. Photo: L. Johnson

The opening program of Quatuor Diotima’s “Music from Paris” festival may have set a local record for classical concert brevity—just 70 minutes long including intermission. 

Yet Wednesday night’s program at the Logan Center did not feel parsimonious, offering inspired, tautly concentrated performances of a complex contemporary work alongside a chamber cornerstone.

Sarah Curran, UChicago Presents’ interim executive director, noted in her introduction that this week’s three-night Gallic series marks the conclusion of the French quartet’s tenure as UC’s Don Michael Randel ensemble in residence. (Sarod virtuso Amjad Ali Khan and colleagues are the new Randel ensemble for this season.)

Quatuor Diotima had scheduled an ambitious linep for the University of Chicago music series in the 2020-21 season, including the complete Bartók quartets and a survey of the late Beethoven quartets. All of those events were cancelled by the pandemic, as were these French programs originally slated for fall of 2021. The group finally made its local debut this past February, and also closed UC’s spring Korngold Festival in April.

As if Covid and their impacted chaotic tenure in Chicago wasn’t disruptive enough, the Paris-based quartet had a change of personnel in January, with Leo Marillier replacing Constance Ronzatti as second violinist. That may have accounted for a somewhat unsettled quality in the group’s performances earlier this year.

Yet Wednesday night, Quatuor Diotima delivered the finest playing of its abrogated Chicago term in music by Boulez, Gerard Pesson and Debussy. The four musicians (violinists Yun-Peng Zhao and Marillier, violist Franck Chevalier and cellist Pierre Morlet) sounded more comfortable with each other and fully in synch as a polished, finely honed unit.

It’s too bad that the attendance was so light for such a superbly played concert. For some reason, the core audience of Hyde Park seniors that routinely packed chamber concerts at Mandel Hall don’t seem to want to venture two blocks south to attend events at Logan.

Music of contemporary European composers is so rarely heard in Chicago—orchestral, chamber or instrumental—that one was grateful for the quiet yet bracing blast provided by Gerard Pesson’s String Quartet No. 3 “Farrago.”

Written in 2013 and premiered by Quatuor Diotima, the work is cast in a single 25-minute movement. Pesson describes his quartet as a “hyper-rondo” with fragments that are varied, developed, revised and distorted throughout its unbroken span.

Befitting the rondo aspect, the score centers on a hushed and restless energy amid brief moments of uneasy repose. While not a crowd-pleaser by any means, Pesson’s score is uniquely compelling in its quiet, ceaseless activity with the “farrago” of musical argument keeping one expectant and on edge for what is coming next.

The Diotima musicans made this disquieting music a mesmerizing experience, drawing a vast array of pianissimo shadings and rendering this score with striking precision, understated bravura and laser-like concentration.

The Pesson quartet sounded like Leroy Anderson compared to Pierre Boulez’s Livre pour quatuor, which preceded it. Six years after the French conductor-composer’s death, it remains an open question whether Boulez’s gnarly music will outlast his reputation in life as polemicist and conductor. (The latter role was manifest locally, of course, in his long association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and through his many textually scrupulous, if often bloodless, recordings.)

First written in 1948 as a work with six movements, Boulez ceaselessly revised Livres for the rest of his life—withdrawing four of the original six sections, expanding the work for string orchestra (Livres pour cordes) and then withdrawing the original quartet version altogether. This “final version” heard Wednesday was made in conjunction with Quatuor Diotima in 2012 and is one of Boulez’s last compositional efforts.

Boulez spent 67 years working on this score, which considering its meager rewards, seems about 66 years and 11 months too long. It seems almost wryly comical that such long and tortuous labors were spent on such a dry and ascetic five minutes of music. The two sections (“Parts 1a and 1b”) are cast in Boulez’s patented plink, plank, plunk serial style. The Diotima players gave these miniatures their considerable all—bringing delicacy and, again, a wide array of soft dynamics to the first part as well as bite and vehemence to the latter section.

The evening ended with one of the most popular works in the chamber repertoire, Debussy’s Quartet in G minor. The composer’s sole work in the genre came early in his career in 1893, and this quietly revolutionary music, with its shifting textures and kaleidoscopic style, anticipated Debussy’s most individual music to come.

Throughout this sterling performance, the Diotima members brought a freshness and urgency that made this familiar score seem boldly revitalized, like an ancient painting with centuries of grime removed. They launched the opening movement in a strong and forthright style (“Animé et très décidé” as marked) with incisive playing and an emphatic coda. The players encompassed the quicksilver pizzicatos and elliptical phrases of the ensuing movement with nimble rhythmic acuity. 

The performance was at its expressive peak in the Andantino. From the opening solos by second violin and viola, the players drew one into a deep well of sadness where time seemed to stand still, conveying an essential melancholy introspection. 

The tempo for the finale may have been faster than the Très modéré marking but made for an undeniably virtuosic and sizzling coda to a concise yet rewarding evening of music.

“Music from Paris” continues through Friday at the Logan Center. Quatuor Diotima performs Stravinsky’s Three Pieces, Szymanowski’s String Quartet No. 2 and Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1, 7:30 p.m. Thursday. 

The festival concludes 7:30 p.m. Friday with Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit, Ravel’s String Quartet, and Franck’s Piano Quintet with Meng-Chieh Liu. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Quatuor Diotima opens French festival with sterling Debussy and a quiet blast of modernism”

  1. Posted Oct 28, 2022 at 6:28 am by Richard Blocker

    The Boulez we heard on Wednesday was approximately the first 10 minutes of a 45-minute work. Inexplicably, this was nowhere acknowledged in the publicity for the concert, leading those of us who had been anticipating this long postponed performance to feel disappointed.

    The assessment posted here by Mr. Johnson uses the brevity of the performance to underline the negative connotations of spending so many years reworking the piece, as if that’s all Boulez had to show for his life in music. The absurdity of this position is obvious to anyone who understands the breadth of Boulez’s musical contributions. One may dislike the man’s music, but it is truly condescending to claim “tortuous efforts” giving rise to “meager results.”

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