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ARCHIVE: Dover String Quartet (November 2015)

Originally published 11/11/2015

Last evening, Chamber Music Houston presented the Dover String Quartet in a concert at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall. They performed Dvorak’s “American” Quartet, Berg’s Op. 3, and Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 1. It was a triumphal return to Houston after two years at the Shepherd School, winning numerous competitions, and virtually sweeping the 2013 Banff String Quartet Competition. The ensemble is one of the select group of string quartets that has few equals, with none better, only different. This is no small measure of excellence considering there are more string quartets of musical and technical accomplishment than ever. Their balance, intonation, tonal beauty and rhythmic precision bring to mind a “new” Guarneri Quartet. Having heard them perform several times before, I am now seeing the individual players’ personalities emerging more clearly. While some groups strive for total uniformity of sound, the Dovers are advocates for their individual parts, whether in the lead or supporting the other players. This makes for more interesting interpretations that are spontaneous and energetic rather than reproduced perfection.

Dvorak’s Op. 96 quartet is played often, and often played poorly. The Dover’s version showed how much wonderful music is within the piece, providing all the colors and rhythmic energy that Dvorak found in African American and Native American music while visiting the United States from 1892-1895. The opening viola solo was gorgeously played by Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt. She continued to play with energy and ample volume throughout the concert. No shy viola part here, hers is the level of a top soloist, but always modulated to the context of chamber music. Cellist Camden Shaw played with a beautiful and sensitive sound, always visually communicating with his colleagues. Second violinist Bryan Lee was visually more reserved, but played as the equal of any first violinist anywhere. Fantastic first violinist Joel Link on this evening projected ever so slightly less than I had heard before, but still in a manner that draws you in, so as not to miss a single note.

Berg’s Op. 3 quartet is one of the most accessible pieces of the Second Viennese School. Primarily atonal, it routinely confounds groups trying to learn and play it. It is the very first piece the Dover Quartet ever played together while at Curtis. Having successfully survived the experience, they decided to form a more permanent ensemble. If for no other reason, we should thank Berg. The Dovers made the piece sound expressive and beautiful, two words not always associated with atonal music. The end of the second movement was particularly so.

Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 1 is…. never mind. It’s one of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets, some of the greatest music ever written. It was given an ideal interpretation, with stunning intonation and ensemble, again with the utmost sensitivity. The first movement literally sang, beginning with cellist Shaw’s opening solo. The scherzo, which can be demolished by a single misplaced note, was steady and precise. This set up the 3rd movement, one of chamber music’s finest creations. Flexible in rhythm and tone, the music floated like a dancer on point. This is not done without complete trust in each other and an acute awareness of each other’s part. For me, the true test of chamber music is such a movement, which cannot be manufactured but must be created. The Dover Quartet gave the audience a musical gift with this movement alone. The final movement was exuberant and joyful. The famous syncopations were hair-raising in accuracy. While such playing can be begun with slow work with a metronome, it has to be completed with an intuitive sense of the rhythm. There were many such moments on this evening. It will be exciting to hear how this already formidable group continues to develop. They will return to Houston in two years. Don’t miss it.

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