Four players, one instrument

The Lark String Quartet performed beautifully in their concert in Chapin Hall Friday night. Their skill was evident from the start, as they began the program with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4. There seemed to be a profound, silent connection between the group’s members: they played as if they were a single instrument, feeling the music in perfect synchrony, with a crisp, clear sound that cut through Chapin’s acoustic thickness. Yet the quartet did not sacrifice passion for precision. They clearly felt deeply about what they were playing, stretching the ends of phrases and swaying with the contour of the music.

Their second piece was perhaps the favorite of the evening, written by contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Because the composer was generally unfamiliar to the audience, the performers took a moment to explain the piece, which was the second movement from his String Quartet No. 2, “Musica Instrumentalis.” The Lark Quartet had commissioned the piece directly from Kernis, and this movement was written as a memorial to a friend of his who died while he was writing it. They explained the movement as pensive and slow with periodic moments of violent, agonized sorrow.

Yet the piece needed no explanation. It was the emotional highlight of the concert for both the performers and the audience, meandering from tight, consonant textures, pensive and aching, to flailing dissonant runs, and back to mournful and slow moments of high violin harmonics. At the end of the piece the room was united in silence and stillness.

After a brief intermission, the Quartet returned to perform Brahms’s Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2. This piece was full of the slow and melancholic passion of Brahms, and the Quartet again played it flawlessly and with deep sensitivity and feeling, giving the Quartet the sophisticated performance it deserves.

If there is any criticism to make about the performance, it is only in the choice of programming. While the Lark Quartet played all of their pieces expertly, the concert felt somewhat emotionally lopsided. The Beethoven, while beautiful, is perhaps not the most interesting string quartet Beethoven wrote, and while the Quartet was obviously very enthusiastic about the music, the performance seemed more an opportunity to showcase the technical proficiency of the individual players and the ensemble rather than to create a moment of deep connection between the performers and their audience.

That connection had to wait until the Kernis was played, which at intermission was the subject of many enthusiastic conversations by audience members. The musical language of the Kernis was extremely effective, very introspective and moving. The Brahms, too, was potentially a deeply moving piece; after the Kernis, however, it seemed almost frivolous. It is a shame that Brahms’s piece did not have the opportunity to affect the audience to its potential.

The program might have been more effective if the Quartet had left the Beethoven out, begun with the Brahms, and played the Kernis quartet in its entirety. They explained that they were performing only the second movement of the Kernis because the complete quartet is 45 minutes long, too long to program, and the second movement is most suited of all the movements to stand alone in a performance. And of course they put the Kernis before the Brahms because the intense and depressing nature of the piece would have made it unsuitable as a finale.

Yet, if all of the Kernis String Quartet No. 2 were as effective and emotional as the second movement, it might have been a perfect piece for the program’s second half. In general, though, nothing truly negative can be said about the performers themselves, as they presented a very personal and often magical evening of music.

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