Report: Formosa Quartet at UT

After settling into a seat in the University of Tennessee’s smaller performance hall for a recital of the Formosa Quartet, I perused the bio section of the program, reminding myself of the quartet members’ other activities. Cellist Ru-Pei Yeh, one of the founders, has returned to the group, but still maintains a roster position with the New York Philharmonic. The ensemble’s newest member, second violinist Wayne Lee, a member of the Manhattan Piano Trio, joined the quartet in 2012, taking the position that founder Joseph Lin held. Lin has subsequently become first violinist for the Juilliard Quartet. First violinist and founder Jasmine Lin and Joseph Lin are not related, although such a complication would have suited my point. Violist Che-Yen Chen was principal viola for the San Diego Symphony for eight seasons and is currently the principal violist for the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.

A day earlier, I found myself contemplating the concert of the KSO’s Principal Quartet for a review and making a pointed distinction between “dedicated” quartets (such as Formosa) and ensembles that spring, by definition, from larger organizations. Perhaps I have been too hasty in stating that group stability is such a positive asset. This ensemble seems to thrive somewhat on the volatility of busy careers and  diverse music endeavors.

The three works on the program couldn’t have been more different, but the gamut certainly provided a good look at the ensemble’s marvelous strengths–impeccable intonation, razor-sharp attacks and dynamics,  and satisfying resolutions. First violinist Lin’s energy, at times chair-hoppingly frenetic, seemed to drive the ensemble, not at all unpleasantly–although at least in a recital hall unfamiliar to them, this pulled the overall balance toward the treble side away from solid quartet resonance. In the opening work, Haydn’s Op. 64 No.2 Quartet, the energy added an unexpected layer of depth, although I didn’t really sense the inevitable spontaneity of a live performance. Perhaps, by the end of the day of guest artist work at the School of Music, weariness was a factor.

I rather enjoyed the middle work, a work commissioned by the ensemble, Dana Wilson’s Hungarian Folk Songs…but for maybe the wrong reasons. The work uses a lot of pizzicatos, micro-tones, glissandos, tone bending, and frantic rhythmic escapades to simulate the flavor of Hungarian folk music, all of which are exciting, entertaining, and, in the end, amusing, but not particularly revealing in any major way other than technique.

UT music faculty members Hillary Herndon (viola) and Wesley Baldwin (cello) joined the quartet to conclude with Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor, “Souvenir de Florence.” In the work, one is instantly reminded of the enthusiasm and spirit the composer is capable of, even in a minor key. One is also reminded of the composer’s affinity for a rapturous string sonority, reminiscent of his Serenade for Strings. Particularly noteworthy was the gorgeous slow Andante cantabile movement and its countering of subtle passages between the violas and later the cellos. The finale movement was everything energetic chamber music was meant to be.

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