Parker Quartet shines brightly at Winter Chamber Music Fest 

Sat Jan 20, 2024 at 9:50 am

By Tim Sawyier

The Parker Quartet performed Friday night at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

It seems as though Blair Milton only picks winners. The director of Northwestern’s annual Winter Chamber Music Festival has curated a stellar roster of ensembles for this 27th season, delivering the world-class listening experience one has come to expect from the three-week January series. The Parker Quartet’s appearance on the penultimate program Friday night more than answered to such expectations.

The Boston-based ensemble opened the evening with Haydn’s Quartet No. 31 in B Minor, Op. 33, no. 1, one of only a handful of the composer’s 68 works in the genre written in a minor key. Throughout the Parker members—violinists Daniel Chong and Ken Hamao, violist Jessica Bodner, and cellist Kee-Hyun Kim—were fully in sync with the score’s stormier idiom.

They charted the opening Allegro moderato’s harmonic ambiguities and formal tricks with unified Classical poise; in the ensuing Scherzando, they brought semplice sweetness to the trio, while assaying its more brooding bookends. The foursome had an organic ensemble in the Andante, where they explored Haydn’s close harmonies at almost impossibly soft dynamics, along with eloquent arioso playing from first violinist Chong. The final Presto went with abandon, driven by rapid-fire interplay between Chong and Hamao.

Grażyna Bacewicz’s String Quartet No. 4 followed, with the Parker providing fine advocacy for the Polish composer’s 1951 opus. While there are principal themes in the opening Andante-Allegro moderato, the impression is more of a series of evocative vignettes woven together. The Parker members followed this narrative thread, nicely capturing Bacewicz’s folk influences. The Andante seldom settles, flowing in a wistful yet somewhat lost manner, a mood the Parkers ably projected. They went headlong through the spritely Allegro giocoso without ever losing its playful quality or attention to its mercurial shifts.

After intermission came Wig (2019) by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy. The work’s title is a play on both Beethoven’s first name and the phrase “to wig out,” and mines material from the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Op. 135 in a freewheeling fantasy. Chong related in his prefatory remarks that Dennehy tries to convey a “virus that eats away in itself,” resulting in a “joyride” for the quartet. In the brief work, a propulsive, opening sunniness—with clear connections to the Beethoven movement—does indeed degrade into more raucous sawing, before a winking fadeout. The Parkers gave a jaunty account of this inventive if incidental work.

Their program closed with the real McCoy: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, his culminating work in the genre. The musicians conveyed the relaxed, almost unassuming mien of the opening Allegretto, which seems a preface to the fireworks that ensue. The Parkers were fiendishly precise in the rhythmic intricacies of the Vivace, with Chong dashing off the movement’s unhinged violin passages.

The hushed intimacy of the Lento assai unfolded beautifully in the Parker’s rapt rendition. The tragic Grave opening of the final movement organically gave way to its striding main section, where the Parkers leaned into the grinding dissonances and fully captured the coy humor of the pizzicatos right before the double bar.

Multiple curtain calls brought the Parker members back for an encore. They offered a serene account of the Andantino from Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor. Their spacious approach felt somewhat soporific after the vigor of Op. 135, yet the collective playing remained pristine, with the evening ending on a shimmering final chord.

Northwestern’s Winter Chamber Music Festival concludes 3 p.m. Sunday with the Gryphon Trio performing music of Beethoven, Russell and Schubert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

Posted in Performances

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