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Orion String Quartet at Bard

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jun 30th, 2019

From left: Todd Phillips, Daniel Phillips, Timothy Eddy, Steven Tenenbom

The Orion String Quartet possesses a large discography and continually tours this country. One trademark is that the two violinists are brothers, Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, and they take turns sharing the first violin chair. With violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Timothy Eddy they have been touring for thirty-one years.

They opened at Bard’s Olin Hall with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Flute Quartet in C major, K. 171 with guest flutist Tara Hellen O’Connor, who is a regular for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. O’Connor’s flute delivers a robust and vigorous sound and I have always enjoyed her performances. Just when this two-movement piece was written is not clear, perhaps in Paris of 1777 or later in Vienna. During Mozart’s lifetime there was heady invention of instruments and Mozart did not come to really love the flute until it was improved considerably later is his short life. The opening Allegro features the flute leading with bucolic atmosphere. The style of this rather early piece resembles Haydn’s courtly work. The minuet demands elegant footstep accompaniment. Eddy’s cello set rhythmic line of the work with resonant authority as Daniel’s violin danced with O’Connor’s flute. The sprightlier and longer concluding Andantino continues the fey dance of flute with polite violin. Mozart recycled some motifs of the Andantino later in his “Gran Partita,” Serenade in B flat major, K. 361 with an ensemble of thirteen players in 1784, of which Christopher Hogwood directed a marvelous recording on the Decca L’Oiseau-Lyre label in 1989.

For Fritz Kreisler’s String Quartet in A minor Todd Philips arrived to play second violin. Kreisler’s velvet violin mesmerized the American stage for nearly half a century. He played in many chamber quartets and enjoyed a stellar solo career. He composed many short compositions and a violin concerto and string quartet between 1919 and 1922. The opening Fantasia movement recalls the lush Romantic musical era of his childhood, as if childhood itself was a wondrous waltz into Neverland. The comic Scherzo paints the hustle and bustle of Manhattan (where he relocated in 1914 after being wounded); the wry wit of this movement is delightful, and Orion caught that smile; Kreisler relocated to America until 1924 and penned his war memoir of trench battle. The shorter Romance sounded cryptically autobiographical, perhaps depicting a relationship that did not end satisfactorily. The energetic and pleasing Finale with Debussy-and-Elgar-like inflection with expansive tempo appeared to celebrate life on the new continent he so enjoyed. Todd’s second violin enjoyed a greater role than a second violin usually is accorded in a quartet.

Todd Phillips took up first violin for Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, known as “Death and the Maiden” (1824). This was a daringly melancholy piece to conclude a concert, yet its dramatic power delivers the WOW factor. Todd (appropriately named for this piece) was fiercely stern and majestic. The theme of “Death and the Maiden” is one of the most famous Medieval and Renaissance subjects. Schubert had written a setting for a poem of a friend in 1817. Upon realizing that he might not live much longer, Schubert took up the theme again, recycling some musical motifs from his 1817 setting the second movement. Schubert’s plunge into the Gothic remains vividly unsettling.

The frenetic opening appears to celebrate the dizzy joys of youthful exuberance in 1/16th notes, then enters the notion of death in the abstract. The following Andante offers a death march. The short Scherzo features a frightening death dance on first violin. The breakneck tarantella in 6/8 time in the concluding movement is hair-raising in its abrupt lurches. Todd became the frenetic figure of death itself. The concluding coda returns to the opening motif to suggest that the seed of death is implanted at the outset of life. But yes, this was about Schubert himself. The work was published by Diabelli three years after poor Schubert’s early death.

The audience rose and demanded two enthusiastic bows.

In all three pieces played it appears the composers were recycling autobiographical elements, quite personal, into their music. From a formal perspective, Mozart was recycling German court music with a French inflection; Kreisler was recycling older Viennese music in his first movement; Schubert recycling a vocal setting in his second movement and an Italian tarantella. And Mozart later recycled that early piece into a late masterpiece. This concert subtlety glorified recycling for an age that must recognize the virtues of recycling on the macro level. Unless we learn to aggressively recycle, the lifespan of humanity will shorten. Orion intended to be shocking….