Review: KSO Principal Quartet

KSO Principal Quartet:
Miroslav Hristov and Edward Pulgar, violins; Kathryn Gawne, viola; and Andy Bryenton, cello; with Eunsoon Corliss, viola in the Mozart

As I walked to the Bijou Theatre for Sunday’s Chamber Music Series concert with the KSO’s Principal Quartet, I passed through Market Square where the Dogwood Arts festivities were underway. There were musicians on the stage, vendor booths were doing a brisk business, as were the restaurants. Families meandered about, chatting amongst themselves, with children in tow or in strollers, browsing through the art and wares. Visually, it was a blending of both photographic reality and angular abstraction. Sonically, too, it was a feast for the ears. A muted and softly abstract background of conversations, laughter, a baby’s squawk, motors humming, distant traffic, dishes clinking, metal clanking, and fabric flapping, mixed in subtle dissonant ways with rising and falling swells of guitars, fiddles, and singers.

I couldn’t help drawing a bit of an analogy between the sonic themes I heard in Market Square, and the sonic themes I heard in Béla Bartok’s Quartet No. 3 for Strings as the first work on the Principal Quartet’s program. In the Bartok, folk-like melodies barely make it to the surface before being battered and consumed by other ambient textures and turned into disquieting questions and queasy answers. This is the beautiful, but not universally appreciated,  language of Bartok… and the Principal Quartet brought to this beautiful performance a level of understanding that I found really reassuring.

One of the “Viola Quintets” of Mozart filled out the first half of the program: the Quintet in C minor for Strings, K. 406. Within a few bars, the quartet had sobered up from the intoxicating Bartok binge and likewise, the audience had settled more or less comfortably into the 18th Century. It became apparent in the excellently played Mozart, as in the Brahms String Quartet No. 1 that followed, this quartet of performers had become quite a different animal than their predecessors of previous years. Gone was the tentativeness and expressions of tension and anxiety. Instead, this was an ensemble that worked beautifully as an ensemble, with what seemed to be carefully, and intricately, thought out dynamics and tempos. And there was a liberated energy that seems to miraculously come only when players have become truly comfortable in communication with one another.

By the Allegro fourth movement of the Brahms, the ensemble quality was still precise and clean, but the energy that had driven dynamics in the first movement had begun to wane a bit. This also left the harmonies not quite as rich and passionate as they should be. Yet, all was on the right track for this quartet—and I look forward to hearing them as much as possible in the future.

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