From Russia, With Love – Unrequited…?

July 31, 2009

              Last night, the long awaited St Petersburg String Quartet performed works by esteemed German and Russian composers. The first half was dedicated to Beethoven, as they performed Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 1 in A major, based on a theme from the Finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 130, followed by the original work. Although the music was elegant, it did not have the variety needed to capture the full attention of the audience. I feel that maybe the whole performance would have been more successful if there had been more dynamic and character contrasts. Perhaps, as well, there was just not enough of a difference between Borodin’s variation and the original for them to stand together, back to back, at the opening of the program.

            As a lover of Russian music, I was eager for the second half of the concert, where they were performing Rachmaninov’s Andante molto sostenuto in C minor, followed by Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 92, “Kabardinian”. The Rachmaninov was absolutely fantastic. It started out creeping and crawling, with the cello climbing in quarter notes the first five levels of C minor with an incredibly dark sound. The viola joined in harmony, and the first and second violin played a solemn melody in harmony with one another, sounding as though this were the beginning of a dark and perilous journey. As the cello and viola rocked back and forth, it sounded like a dismal, epic march, and the cello began to add embellishments to the frame that had already been set. The agitation grew, and the cello and viola began to play pizzicato as the violins continued their quest, much like a doomed battalion through a rainstorm. The music became agonizing, as though crying out in pain, and the melody grew quicker – shorter rhythms and more intense colours emerged, and the ominous cello marched on, never letting anyone forget the dark and grave matters at hand. Eventually, things slowed once more, echoes of the beginning of the journey sounded like memories of souls lost along the way. It became fierce once more, but then slowed, calmed, and as the piece drew to a close, it felt as though the music itself were taking a final breath before its death. This piece was executed beautifully and musically. I have always felt that music that tells a story is what touches one the most, and this piece convinced me that the St Petersburg String Quartet really did have the mastery over musicality for which they are acclaimed.

            The outset of the Prokofiev string quartet brought to mind much of the composer’s work that I’m familiar with, including Love of Three Oranges, Romeo and Juliet, and Peter and the Wolf. One of the things I like most about Prokofiev’s work is the raw emotions that he touches in the way he mixes chords and melodies. Kabardinian lived up to my expectations with the ensemble beautifully executing the hidden turmoil and doomed/joyful melody of the Allegro sostenuto. The distress and pain, diffusing into the beauty of the Adagio, and the chaos with emotional resolution in the final Allegro, finishing with a grand chord, were typical heart-wrenching Prokofiev.

            Although I myself was absolutely ecstatic over the last two pieces, it seemed the audience was resistant to give a standing ovation. It was like a race – would the ensemble get on stage quickly enough to give an encore and stop those exiting the church from escaping beforehand? Only those who feigned a standing ovation actually made it to the door in time. When they did perform their encore, the audience members reluctantly slipped into the closest pew and politely listened as they performed an adorable, though brief little jig. After this piece had finished, everyone clapped ecstatically, then beat a quick retreat in fear of another encore. I felt rather depressed watching this scene unfold. I truly felt that the St Petersburg string quartet did a fabulous job, although I was not completely convinced by the first half of the concert program. I feel that perhaps more contrast in the opening half would have captured the interest of the audience. It absolutely underlines for me the importance of considering your audience when developing a program. The bottom line is that we’re not there to perform for ourselves. The goal is to connect with audience members so that they can be carried along on a musical journey. If you can’t get them on board and secure their interest, they can jump off the wagon without waiting to listen to what you want to say.

Lindsay Bryden, flutist

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