String Quartet’s energy has no limits—but its youth does
The enterprising ensemble,
known for its “guerilla” tactics in reaching new audiences, has not outgrown
its need for good coaching
There’s lots to like about the Jasper String Quartet, the youthful
up-and-coming chamber ensemble with a string of prestigious competition prizes
and awards to its credit that has been steadily gaining notice in the music
world through “guerilla chamber music” initiatives such as spontaneous
performances at malls.
For starters, Jasper plays with spunk, energy and rhythmic vitality—and its firm
sense of pitch and intonation among the four players is nothing short of astounding. Moreover, the ensemble knows how to work
the crowd though a liberal display of gesticulations (all seemingly genuine)
that connects with the listener to forge an interactive musical experience. What, then, could possibly be the
In a word, maturity. Musical maturity.
For all Jasper’s exuberance and animated performance style there is nevertheless
a certain lack of direction and interpretative savoir-faire at this stage in the
quartet’s development that compares unfavorably with more seasoned chamber ensembles,
both past and present. Listening to
Jasper’s performance Saturday evening reminded me of that pot of soup on the
stove just beginning to smell oh-so-good—until a closer examination reveals the
need for additional seasonings and a good hour or two more to simmer.
Saturday’s three-work program of Russian (or Russia-inspired) music opened with
Alexander Borodin’s tuneful String
Quartet No. 2 in D Major, a work whose melodies you’ve probably heard
without realizing they were Borodin’s. It’s
a delightful work, and whatever may be lacking in form, structure and thematic
development is more than made up for in sheer melodic appeal. Jasper delivered a playful rendition of this
piece that shimmered, despite a few ensemble blemishes.
Blend of tone in the Borodin was generally excellent, as Jasper produced a
collective sound brimming with warmth and color. Theirs was not, however, a homogenous
sound. Legato was curiously choppy in
the lyrical passages—as if the players could not see the forest for the
trees when deciding where Borodin’s phrases were headed. Problems with legato were also evident in the playing
of cellist (and founding member of Jasper) Rachel Henderson Freivogel, who
appeared to have some degree of difficulty negotiating the wide-interval leaps
in the alto and high tenor registers during the opening and final movements of
this work, and again in the Lera Auerbach Quartet that followed.
Ensemble-work among the four players was tight throughout, except for a lack of
agreement between first and second violins in the rhythm of the prominent triplet
figures near the end of the beloved Notturno
movement. Everything came together
nicely in the fourth movement finale, with sixteenth-note runs passing smoothly
from player to player and some impressive passagework between the two violins
playing an octave apart.
Russian-American composer and pianist Lera Auerbach described her String Quartet No.2 as “an intense act
of soul searching.” And intense is exactly the word to
characterize the deeply morose writing here.
In his informal pre-performance talk from the stage, violist Sam Quintal urged
the audience to look for “the beauty that comes from darkness.” And to be sure, there is no paucity of darkness,
gloom and depression in this work (which appears to combine the hopeless
resignation of Shostakovich’s late string quartets with Bartok’s extended string
techniques and neo-tonal construction). What
a shame Auerbach offered the listener nothing in the way of contrast of tempo
or mood. All six movements are slow, and
before long the “darkness” begins to generate more monotony than it does beauty.
Clearly, Jasper is a devoted champion of Auerbach’s Quartet. One could see it in the faces of the players
as they passed the mournful, dirge-like lamentations to and from one-another. From a listener’s perspective, however, this
piece is a hard sell. When it finally
came to an end I felt as if I had just sat through a 24-hour Ingmar Bergman
Following the intermission Jasper tackled the first of Beethoven’s three mammoth
Razumovsky Quartets, Op. 59 no. 1. This lengthy masterpiece from the composer’s
middle period is tightly constructed and demands a firm command of the tricky rhythmic
figures to string together the relentless motifs into an organic whole.
The Jasper Quartet forged a respectable interpretation of this warhorse,
particularly in the third movement Adagio,
where the players captured the tenderness of Beethoven’s phrases while
stressing all the right notes at just the right places. The opening of the first movement Allegro sizzled, with robust dynamic
shifts and alert delivery of the eighth-notes figures that propelled the
rhythmic drive forward.
The highly energized second movement scherzando
demands a steady, metronomic beat and lots of muscle to propel the rhythmic
motifs. It didn’t get either. The Russian dance of the Finale (Beethoven’s
commission for the three Razumovsky quartets mandated a Thème russe in each work) had sufficient energy and vitality, but
here too there was a lack of clearly defined rhythmic execution, such as the eighth-note followed by two sixteenths
The Jasper Quartet deserves praise for spreading
the word to new audiences but must recognize that it’s not necessary to lecture established audiences on familiar repertory. For
those who know how to listen, Beethoven’s music speaks well enough for itself.
Save the talks for the mall crowd.
What: The Jasper String
Quartet, presented by Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613
James Street, Syracuse
When: February 25, 2012, 8 p.m.
Time: about 2 hours
Information: call (315) 682-7720
Ticket prices: Regular $20, Senior
$15, Student $10
Next: Borealis Wind Quintet,
with pianist Leon Bates, 8 p.m. March 24
"InstantEncore made launching a mobile app seem effortless."