On May 28th four young players, comprising the Verona Quartet, all recent graduates of Juilliard master’s program, reminded us that history and music and listening all matter. In hearing we learn what composers from years past heard and felt. We hear what they dared to hear. We hear what they thought and what they feared to think or say.
Haydn lived as a servant in the household of his employer. He made the music he thought his employer wanted to hear. It was avant-guard for his time, yet it was designed to please an audience of aristocrats and persons of royal blood, the men in powdered wigs and the women in long gowns. It was at the same time original, new, and exciting. We heard Op 50 No. 1 in B flat major of 1787 dedicated to the King of Prussia as a fresh, spirited, and uplifting piece.
Shostakovich also wrote for a patron: a state. For much of his life, that state was headed by Stalin. He lived through the Terror when a knock on the door in the middle of the night could mean deportation or death. Even after Stalin’s death in 1953 Shostakovich continued to be haunted by the fear of that period. We know that because the Verona Quartet played his Op. 108, No. 7 F sharp minor (1960).
As explained by Abigail Rojansky, the violist, a three-note knock is one of the quartet’s recurring themes. The quartet reveals the torment, fears, and hesitancy of expressing himself fully and freely. The music conveys a deep unhappiness, the lingering fear of the soulless state grinding down poets, artists, and musicians. There is a poetic peacefulness interrupted by a flash of violence. The piece ends on the minor key, leaving us with a taste of sadness.
Verona’s team of Jonathon Ong and Dorothy Ro, violins, Abigail Rojansky, viola and Warren Haggerty, cello, turned to Beethoven’s Quartet no. 2, Opus 59, for their final and most stirring piece. Here I felt they completely embraced Beethoven’s world of clever and subtle musical figures, as well as the overarching feeling of this most satisfying quartet. What I noticed about this piece is that Beethoven seldom repeats; when a theme is repeated it is also changed and this way the piece evolves, keeping listeners and players engaged in this most enjoyable music. Three cheers for the Verona.
They came to Millbrook following a year’s engagement as the resident quartet at Juilliard where they will continue their tutelage in the professional program. They told me they have been working with David Finckel, co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and former cellist of the Emerson String Quartet. They will be playing at the Chelsea Music Festival starting June 9. http://www.chelseamusicfestival.org