BWW Review: BEETHOVEN INTIMATE LETTERS at Italian Academy At Columbia University
Your standard classical music concert usually proceeds as follows: 1) the ensemble enters 2) if there's a conductor, he or she enters with the concert master or soloist and 3) the concert begins and ends without anyone having spoken a word. The music is supposed to speak for itself. If you don't understand what just happened, you either read your program notes, ask someone, or just forget about the whole thing.
ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts has other ideas about concert presentation. Using a combination of well-chosen visuals, fascinating descriptions of composers' lives and musical motivations, together with stunningly played music, the standard concert format is nowhere in evidence. The audience is engaged. It learns. It's a brilliant concept.
"Beethoven: Intimate Letters", was presented in the jewel box of an auditorium at the Italian Academy of Columbia University on November 1, 2018. The Ariel String Quartet, consisting of violinist Alexandra Kazovsky, violinist Gershon Gerchikov, violist Jan Grüning, and cellist Amit Even-Tov, paired one of Beethoven's first string quartets, Op.18 No.1in F major with one of his last, Op.131 in C# minor. The contrasts between the two quartets were, to put it mildly, striking.
Ms.Kazovsky and Mr.Gerchikov first presented sections of letters from Beethoven's contemporaries. These intriguing accounts were not exactly flattering, describing a short-tempered, ill-mannered young man whose dislike for formality seemed to keep him apart from the society for which he paradoxically seemed to yearn. An early love interest did not go the way he wanted because of his anger issues. Perhaps as a way to compensate, at the age of thirty he threw himself into the writing of his first six string quartets, commissioned by the same nobleman who commissioned chamber music from Haydn.
The Ariel Quartet then gave a cheery rendition of the first movement (Allegro con brio). Sitting in the position of first violin, Mr. Gerchikov demonstrated his outstanding technique with fine articulation of complicated turning figures and scale-like passages. The second movement, (adagio affetuoso ed appassionato)was said to have been influenced by the final scene of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. A slide of a painting depicting this scene had been displayed during the pre-performance discussion. Performed with great emotion by all four players, the focus was on the musical anguish of the scene. Here was a prime example of what was coming in the so-called Romantic period; music which wore its heart on its sleeve.
The op.131 quartet was one of the last of the sixteen Beethoven ultimately wrote. There were many years and experiences between op.18 and this piece. Whereas the first quartets were written in proper Classical style ( eg.fast-slow-fast), op.131 was a piece in which Beethoven broke the mold. Since he had already done so to the symphonic form, Beethoven had no problem taking a sledgehammer to the traditional and expected pattern and created a string quartet of seven stylistically different "movements", played without pause, and dabbled in new melodic and rhythmic sounds.
Ms.Kazovsky switched places with Mr. Gerchikov for this quartet. Before the performance (and before the intermission so they could just sail into playing the lengthy piece), the two detailed the tragic turn Beethoven's life was starting to take by discussing the 1802 letter written to his brother, now known as the "Heiligenstadt Testament." While his hearing and his health slowly declined and he seemed to be sinking into dementia, his creative output was still as strong as ever. He devoted the last years of his life to the string quartet genre, and op.131 was a masterpiece of invention. It was finally ready during the summer of 1826, near the end of his life.
The Ariel took the audience on a wild roller-coaster ride of emotions during this piece, particularly in the final movement. Played with extreme passion and fantastically coordinated mood swings, the intensity of the playing left listeners breathless at the end.
The quartet has been playing together for almost twenty years, since they all were in their early teens, and it shows in the tightness of ensemble, their non-verbal communication, and their ability to musically breathe together. Entrances seemed to come out of thin air and much thought. Each instrument had a moment to sing out. Each player was an equal partner. It was exciting and wonderful to hear.
This was an evening that appealed to the listener's head as well as the heart. The superb execution of the presentation made the concert more than just a special musical experience. The next concert/illustrated talks presented by the ASPECT Foundation will showcase the music of Mozart, Schumann, and Classical Vienna. They will be performed by different groups in December and January at the Bohemian Hall.