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Aeolus Quartet at Merkin Hall

Music review, May 2, 2017
by Stephen Kaye
Wed May 3rd, 2017

Aeolus Quartet

The final Tuesday afternoon concert of the season drew a good audience to hear the Aeolus Quartet play a jovial Haydn, two related pieces by a young Copland, an intriguing Missy Mazzoli – and the reason why I was there – and the Schumann Quartet in A major, Op 41 No 3.

This charming group of young players started their group in Cleveland but now make NY their home.  Now eight years old, they have an established reputation and a repertoire that includes living composers. What I liked about this quartet is that they are comfortable together, comfortable in their music and a comfort to listen to.  Never did I feel that they were reaching, straining or attempting to climb above the clouds. They were here to make music and they did a good job of it.  The violinists are Nicholas Tavani and Rachael Shapiro; the violist is Gregory Luce and the cellist Alan Richardson. 

The Haydn (Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 64,No 3) took its cue from the dances and could well have been accompanied by sylphs from the ballet. I could see skirts swirling and men bowing and a jovial Haydn beaming. 

Two Pieces for String Quartet by Aaron Copland were, according to cellist Gregory Luce who introduced these pieces, composed in Paris while he was studying under Nadia Boulanger.  She had pushed him to find an American voice, and that voice emerged in these two pieces.  The first reminds us of a landscape, perhaps a mountain that is climbed, and a smashing view.  The second, according to Greg, sounds like a crowd of voices, the babble of American immigrants. That sounded about right.  Both were strong, well structured and sounded American without schmaltz.

Missy Mazzoli’s Quartet for Queen Mab takes us into the present century – it was composed in 2014 – with a tonic soundscape played by traditional instruments in a traditional way.  Her musical vocabulary here is familiar, but the music is intriguing, somewhat mystical, absorbing, moving and fun.  That is to say, I enjoyed it and think it should be played often. It goes from the minimal to a richness, from simple to complex. The tempo varies.  We hear different voices. There are moments of searing intensity followed by a lullaby.  Ms Mazzoli is one of our more interesting young composers.

The Schumann quartet, as explained by cellist Alan Richardson in his introduction, is slightly “off”; there are notes and tempos that are not quite “right”, which makes it hard to play.  It might have been because he was in love with Clara. It might have been because he was a modernist before his time.  But the offness is what distinguishes this piece, making it interesting.  It contains a wide range of emotive material that Aeolus played with care. It was at once, sentimental, longing, wistful, lyrical, intimate with moments of stern formality.  It has moments of bold statement and unsettled agitation. It is youthful and hopeful.

Aeolus gave a touching rendition of Samuel Barber’s Serenade for Strings (1929)  in its original quartet form as their encore.  It is one of their signature pieces.  They brought out the building sense of desperation, of doom and then a reprise.