WASHINGTON, February 15, 2019 – The Young Concert Artists (YCA) series returned to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater last week with something completely different. Known for showcasing upcoming and exceptionally talented young classical soloists, the series presented the Washington, D.C. series debut of the Omer Quartet. The ensemble won First Prize in YCA’s 2017 International Auditions.
The Omer Quartet
The quartet also garnered additional performance prizes, including the Tri-Noon Recitals Prize from Rockefeller University, North Carolina’s Tryon Concert Association Prize, the Buffalo (N.Y.) Chamber Music Society Prize and Arizona’s Hayden’s Ferry Chamber Music Series Prize. Rounding out a glittering 2017, the ensemble also won the Top Prize at Italy’s Premio Paolo Borciani Competition.
Here in D.C. last week, quartet members Mason Yu and Erica Tursi (violins), Junsun Hong (viola) and Alex Cox (cello) performed before a near-capacity Terrace Theater audience. They presented a sophisticated, exciting and eclectic program of string quartet music, much of which is infrequently heard today, at least in these precincts.
The Haydn string quartet
The quartet opened the evening with a performance of Haydn’s “String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 20 No. 1.” Like much of Haydn’s music, this string quartet hides numerous musical challenges (and occasional musical jokes) throughout a vigorous piece that seems deceptively simple at times. But is not.
Rather surprisingly, the Omer Quartet launched Haydn’s vigorous first movement out of synch. After a muddy dozen or so opening bars, the players found their musical footing and performed the rest of the work quite splendidly. What happened here in the early innings? A bit of opening night stage jitters? It’s hard to say. But once the problem was corrected, it was smooth sailing for the rest of the evening’s program.
Debussy’s evolutionary quartet
Jumping from the classical period to the late 19thcentury, the quartet next performed what was probably the most familiar work on the evening’s program, Debussy’s only string quartet, his 1893 “String Quartet in G minor, L 85, Op. 10.”
An excellent contrast to Haydn’s more formal quartet, the Debussy quartet at once showcases Debussy’s developing “impressionism” (a term he disliked) as well as his movement toward the 20thcentury’s general tendency to break with the rules of classical Western harmony.
At times angular and stark, at other times richly Romantic and passionate, Debussy’s quartet is constructed in the classical form, more or less. But its abrupt changes in mood as well as key signature create tension and surprise throughout the work. The Omer Quartet gave a crisp, vigorous and at times starkly angular reading to this remarkable composition in one of the best and most original performances we’ve yet heard.
A contemporary work by prize-winning YCA composer Chris Rogerson
The ensemble launched the second half of its program with the “String Quartet No. 1” (2009-2010) of YCA prize-winning composer Chris Rogerson, who wrote it when he was just 20.
As compared to the Haydn and the Debussy, Rogerson’s quartet is short, informal, edgy and even a bit brittle at times. Its three short movements take a more or less traditional form. But each movement is suggestively rather than traditionally entitled. I.e.,“Duel,” “Hymn,” and “Dance.”
Like many in the currently up-and-coming generation of young composers, Rogerson is somewhat indebted to the previous generation of American minimalist composers – such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams – who gradually dislodged classical music from its dogmatic, academic, atonal rut. They effectively rediscovered harmony, but radically simplified it into ever-morphing, repetitious motifs. In another early hallmark, they generally (though not always) kept their original works short and to the point.
Rogerson is more of an originalist in that he doesn’t exactly follow the original recipe. But the motivic repetitions (particularly in the finale of this quartet) of early minimalism remain, along with spiky dissonances and special string effects.
The Omer Quartet offered a taut, kinetic and at times percussive interpretation of Rogerson’s score, further evidence yet that the new generation of composers are beginning once again to offer distinctly modern music that’s once again giving classical audiences something to think about.
A rarely-heard powerhouse fugue by Beethoven
The four young artists closed the evening with a surprising, powerful, robustly complex piece that most audiences – including this critic – likely have never heard. We’re talking about Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” (usually Great or Grand Fugue in English), Op. 133. It’s rarely heard because, well, it’s too hard to play for one. But it’s also a bit of an orphan in terms of Beethoven’s vast musical terrain.
In short, the Grosse Fuge started out as the finale of the composer’s “Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op. 130.” But, for a variety of reasons, including its considerable length when compared to the other movements of that quartet – not to mention its difficulties and dense harmonic structure – Beethoven was persuaded to replace the “Grosse Fuge” finale with a more “reasonable” one when “Quartet No. 13” was published.
Meanwhile, the “Grosse Fuge” got a different Opus number (133). Today, musicologists quarrel endlessly about its form. For their part, even modern, technically superior musicians still regard it as tough to play.
An exceptional performance
The Omer Quartet, however, chose to ignore all this and accept the challenge. In response, they carved out a deeply felt, personal, yet virtuosic response to the composer’s monumental. Just tagging along on their musical journey proved an invigorating but pleasantly exhausting experience.
It actually felt as if the performers were truly unveiling a “newly discovered” piece by a very famous composer. Except that this “newly discovered” work has been there all along. The Omer Quartet should (and probably will) make this neglected work a staple in their developing repertoire. In this performance, these artists genuinely seemed to “own” the work. In so doing, they triumphantly concluded their recital with a masterful reading of Beethoven’s massive score.
For a sample performance of the Omer Quartet performing an excerpt from Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19, check out the following video.
Rating: ***(Three out of four stars)
— Headline image: Omer Quartet, L-R: Mason Yu and Erica Tursi (violins); Alex Cox (cello); Junsun Hong (viola).
Photo credit: Matt Dine for YCA.