Lord knows there are a lot of young string quartets out there trying to make an impact on both classical music and the cultural scene generally. They even have their own competitions to try to sort out the horde, just like pianists, singers, and solo violinists.
In the crush, these foursomes (two violins, a viola, and a cello) can fall prey to a host of challenges: doing too little or too much with the music, over-coordinating their sound or letting their solo musical personalities create a jumble, failing to project charisma on stage or “overacting” to the point where the actual playing suffers. And because much of the string quartet literature is unusually intellectual even compared to other classical genres, a big dose of preciousness or heaviness can easily creep in.
Last week here in Washington, the venerable Fortas Chamber Music Series, named for 1960s-era Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, presented a young ensemble that has essentially solved for all of these challenges. The Dover Quartet has recently been cutting a wide swath through the concert scene with a winning mix of old and new music. Their Washington program, consisting of Mozart plus Czech composer Bedrich Smetana and current American composer Caroline Shaw, presented string quartet music in an ingratiating light that will no doubt be featured in many return visits and follow-ups to their recently released debut album.
Perhaps the best news of all was that the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater was sold out well in advance for the Dover Quartet’s Monday night gig. There’s little doubt that the region’s concert presenters will find larger facilities for this ensemble in the future, whether at the Kennedy Center or elsewhere.
It’s a compliment to all four members of the Dover Quartet to state that they structure their playing to make sure to showcase their lower half, consisting of Camden Shaw on the cello and Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt on the viola. Both Milena and Camden – I’ve spoken to all four musicians and first names work best for this youthful group – clearly could be embarking on either solo careers or secure jobs in big-city symphony orchestras if they wished.
But Mozart’s late Quartet in F major was expressly written for Prussian King Frederick William, who was a very fine amateur cellist, and Mozart couldn’t exactly provide a boring accompaniment line in the cello for royalty to play. In the Dover’s performance of this quartet, Camden’s cello really sang, especially in the first movement, without the excessive note-by-note “attack” that you sometimes hear from string-quartet cellists in an attempt to break through.
For its part, Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 in E minor, subtitled “From My Life,” starts as a showcase for the viola – and not even in its upper ranges where it’s kind of an imitation violin but rather on its lower strings where the characteristic viola sound requires a fine balance between sonority and graininess.
Since Smetana himself said the quartet’s opening depicts both youthful Romantic yearning and “a kind of warning of my future misfortune” – like Beethoven he went deaf later in life, when he wrote this composition – the viola has to project a mix of emotions in what is also some fairly virtuosic writing. Milena’s viola sound is very forward-speaking yet also lyrically flowing, enabling the “ear” to settle in without experiencing the explicit bite that can make extended viola lines a challenge to the listener when performed by others. Milena’s playing sent the Smetana composition off to a mesmerizing start that gave its essentially somber overall feeling, despite some dance-like episodes in the middle movements, a hall-filling quality.
Further up the ladder of pitches, Joel Link on first violin and Bryan Lee on second violin provide an uncanny identity of sound production when the music calls for that kind of coordination, much like the first and second violins in an orchestra. But Joel and Bryan can also each take the solo reins for the featured line when called for, providing a wonderful “round robin” effect on passage-work that gets traded all around the quartet – something that exists somewhere in all string quartet compositions no matter how different the composers’ underlying tonal language.
Of special interest to readers of this theater-based website will be some of the Dover Quartet’s rehearsal techniques. Camden told me that the quartet’s really quite amazing unity of sound coordination sometimes results from them actually singing the lines together before playing them on their instruments. Not only does this train them toward a unity of intention at the beginning of notes, but it also helps them agree on internal phrasing, such as whether and how much to slide between pitches.
In performance, the quartet doesn’t really sit in an exact semi-circle like other quartets, something that can subtly advantage the violins simply because they play higher up and there’s no compensating factor. Camden with his cello essentially seats center rather than off to one side, and Milena, again to use theatrical terms, “cheats” more face-forward than other violists in string quartets. Meanwhile, the two violinists, Joel and Bryan, scooch a bit closer to each other than you often see in quartets.
Some of why this works is that their rehearsal techniques reduce the need for some of the antics of other quartets, who continually seem to mug at one another to coordinate the beginning of phrases and even sometimes almost leap out of their chairs at key moments in the music. That kind of thing that can be entertaining to watch for five minutes before it starts to look like “performance art” and grows wearying. It can also create a bigger problem: out-of-tune playing, especially on the violins, from all the excess physical action.
By contrast, the Dover Quartet produces virtually impeccable intonation while often just needing to lift an eyebrow to one another along the way. Of course, the fact that they’re all graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where they all met, doesn’t hurt.
Still, no quartet is going to achieve much buzz without exploring the very active if also uneven-in-quality current compositional scene in “classical” music. The Dover Quartet has grabbed a bit of ownership in one of the best pieces of recent output, a five-movement work expressly written for Washington by Caroline Shaw, a New York-based composer in her 30s.
The piece, literally called Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks) – yes complete with those parentheses – harnesses a number of neat tricks that Ms. Shaw has become known for. They include a shift between straight string tones and a glassy sound that string instruments can alternately make but usually avoid, atonal or random-sounding music among the four instruments that can suddenly blossom into conventional classical or even jazzy figurations, slide effects that break down traditional chords into kind of “in-betweeny” notes that you couldn’t even play on the piano that once again magically reconstitute themselves into new themes, and so on.
Whether or not you buy the supposed connection between the music and five elements of the actual grounds of Dumbarton Oaks that Ms. Shaw cites in her program – and neither I nor other audience members were sure about that – it certainly got people talking. A large part of that has to do with the polished way that the Dover Quartet plays the piece (I’ve actually heard it played elsewhere by another quartet, somewhat less effectively). If only all contemporary new music got such a performance!
Before the Dover Quartet returns to our region in late April for a concert in Baltimore’s Shriver Hall, you can check out their debut recording called Tribute. The name is an allusion to the legendary although now-disbanded Guarneri Quartet, whose violist, Michael Tree, was Milena’s teacher and mentor. The CD consists entirely of Mozart’s music, including the quartet the Dover played in Washington. But the real highlight is Mozart’s String Quintet in C minor, in which Mr. Tree was invited to sit in with the Dover Quartet to provide the second viola line that Mozart placed in this composition. The sheer invention and fullness of sound that the Dover plus Mr. Tree produces in the Quintet is really breathtaking. I’ve practically worn out the CD player in my car listening to it!
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
The Dover Quartet performed on Monday, January 9, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. in the Fortas Chamber Music Series in the Family Theater at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. The Dover Quartet will next perform in the area on Saturday, April 29, 2017 in the Shriver Hall Concert Series at Shriver Hall – 3400 N. Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. For all upcoming events in the Fortas Chamber Music Series in Washington, see their concert schedule.