Voxare String Quartet plays impressive program

The young Voxare String Quartet lived up to its name by presenting its own contemporary voice in a challenging classical program. Emory Strawn/Photo Editor.
The young Voxare String Quartet lived up to its name by presenting its own contemporary voice in a challenging classical program. Emory Strawn/Photo Editor.

Dressed in all black for a performance last Thursday in the Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, the Voxare String Quartet exuded professionalism and musical prowess. The group didn’t disappoint. Consisting of Emily Ondracek-Peterson and Galina Zhdanova on the violins, Erik Peterson on the viola and Wendy Law on the cello, temporarily substituting for Adrian Daurov, who could not make the performance, Voxare danced between the contemporary and classical in its performance, to great effect.

The musicians started with The Named Angels, a precipitous piece by Mohammed Fairouz, a young and now frequently-performed composer based in New York City. The work is split into four movements, referring to and providing a fitting portrait of angels familiar to the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions.

“Mikhail’s Thunder,” the first movement, starts. There’s no warning. It’s sudden, almost “in media res,” in the middle of things – even though it isn’t literature, there’s still a storied element to the piece. You barely have enough time to catch your breath, before Law’s spiccato technique comes at you – the bow barely grazes the strings but still gives us an aggressive, full-bodied start.

Mikhail – Arabic for Michael – is an angel associated with great visceral strength and power in all three faiths. Mikhail brings thunder to the Earth, but is also revered as an angel of mercy in the Quran, and Voxare evokes this split beautifully in a fantastically-composed piece that is marked with ups and downs. Ondracek-Peterson and Zhdanova give us the quick, grating, abrasive sounds that are Mikhail at his most aggressive, yet Peterson and Law manage to balance it out somehow with robust viola and cello, providing a rich middle tone that grounds the violins.

Voxare consistently plays faster, louder, noisier in this movement of Fairouz’s composition. They’re not exactly in unison, but that’s the direction of the composer, a cohesive incohesiveness. It works. There’s a manic nature to the piece, and Voxare captures it perfectly.

The musical finesse of the quartet is particularly astonishing given that it only formed in 2008, having met as students at Juilliard School. The young age of the members doesn’t stop them, however, as they have already performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and have been designated multiple times as the Classical Pick of the Week by The New York Times.

Watching Voxare play together is fascinating. Although Daurov was not present for the performance, there was no hesitation on Law’s part; she played seamlessly with the quartet and it would have been impossible to tell she wasn’t an original member, if not for the names on the program.

In “Azrael, Malak al-Maut,” the second movement of The Named Angels, Ondracek-Peterson leads slowly, quietly, delicately, as Law echoes with a reverberation of sorts on the cello, playing a rephrase of the violin part uncharacteristically high. Azrael is the Angel of Death in the Jewish and Islamic faiths, and the movement does reflect this, but not in the expected ominous manner.

Instead, the piece builds off Ondracek-Peterson and Law’s introduction, and unfolds into a cascading call and response of the violins and the viola and cello through the rest of the piece. Their sound is rich, as if coated with velvet. There’s a depth to it; they play with a certain perspective. It seems all these qualities can only be applied to something seen, the visual and performing arts, perhaps, but that’s not the case here. It’s one of the most beautiful portraits of death in music.

Peterson makes eye contact with the others as the piece subsides, and everyone stops and lifts their bows at exactly the same time. There are no residual notes, it is a clean break that is absolutely satisfying, given their previously multi-layered, complex musical performance.

The members of Voxare are all classically trained, but they aren’t afraid to try new things, and this is what makes them so memorable – their ability to bring new sounds, new music, new culture to us. Particularly fun to listen to are Ondracek-Peterson and Zhdanova, who play perhaps the most recognizable, classical, Western instruments in all of music, the violin, but are still able to challenge our ears and bring us completely out of the classical experience. It’s no easy task. Voxare is refreshing.

Closing off their performance with a return to their classical roots, the Voxare musicians performed Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13. The name doesn’t suggest much, but it doesn’t matter. Voxare played it alluringly.

The composition is broken into four movements, with the second described by Peterson as recalling the “Sturm und Drang” (or “Storm and Stress”) literary movement in late-18th-century Germany.

The third movement begins with Ondracek-Peterson, Zhdanova and Peterson all plucking gently on the strings of their instruments. The sound is pleasant, and the performance nimble. Hints of Mendelssohn’s music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an earlier work, sneak in. We feel like we’re watching someone being chased through the forest. The result is delightful.

There’s something very heroic in Voxare’s handling of the notes in the fourth movement. Gorgeous panoramic scales of notes are the result of Ondracek-Peterson’s sweeps of the bow, and the result is something fast, something high-strung. The tremolo, a wavering effect, of the violins builds up sound and suspense – Ondracek-Peterson and Zhdanova move their bows so fast and so minimally it produces a deep, vibrating sound and motion. Visually, it’d be a fine scribble. There’s a sense of real urgency imbued.

Voxare plays together. There’s an incredible balance to its musicality and its performance, as each musician allows the next to fully express him or herself. We end the Mendelssohn as we begin it: with a singular, developed, entrancing sound. There’s something very raw about the sound Voxare brings. In the short span of their performance at the College, the musicians were able to fill the space with something very real. The name “Voxare” is the group’s own creation, stemming from the Latin word “vox,” for voice. It makes sense: Voxare definitely has its own voice.

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