It’s called Project Jupiter, a three-year partnership between Spivey Hall and the Boston-based Jupiter String Quartet to perform, teach and connect with metro Atlanta’s Southern Crescent region in traditional and unique ways.
Saturday night in the hall, the quartet performed an excellent program of Beethoven and Kurtag, the culmination of a busy week. Over the previous days, they’d played two sets in the atrium of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, given a concert at an assisted living residence and joined with high school students for Spivey’s annual chamber orchestra workshop. In spring 2011 and future seasons, the Jupiters are booked to work through a cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, mentor local student ensembles, offer public master classes and more.
Since opening two decades ago, the 400-seat venue with the international reputation has had the ambition to host a string quartet-in-residence. But as part of Clayton State University, Spivey looked for more than just artistic excellence.
“That was the goal,” says Spivey executive and artistic director Sam Dixon, “to find a quartet that would be self-sufficient in the education role and that could be programmed on the [main] series.
“If you’re going to send a group out with the Spivey name, they have to be first rate.”
The Jupiters are on their way. The four members, all of them just over 30, are rather closely connected: two sisters (second violinist Meg Freivogel and violist Liz Freivogel), one husband (cellist Daniel McDonough is married to the second violinist), and a non-family first violinist, Nelson Lee, who must feel both left out from the intimacy and relieved that his co-workers aren’t also his kinfolk. (The intense and deeply personal nature of string quartet playing means that enduring ensembles must learn to cope with too much shared intimacy. There are books about how some quartets adapt by ignoring one another away from rehearsals and concerts, or how some quartets vote on each other’s vacation plans during the concert season, aware that if one has a skiing accident the others will be penalized.)
As a budding quartet, they met at college(s) in Ohio and, as a group, enrolled in the New England Conservatory’s professional quartet training program. They’ve since won the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition and been awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant. They’ve checked off all the leading indicators of future success.
On Saturday night, they opened with pert, conversational early Beethoven and closed with spare, mystical late Beethoven. Not surprisingly for a young group, they delivered one epoch more convincingly than the other. The G Major Quartet Opus 18, No. 2, one of Beethoven’s first attempts at a genre already perfected by Haydn and Mozart, shows flashes of his darker and more psychological leanings.
The Jupiters burst into it with abandon. Within 30 seconds, they’d won over the audience and outlined their playing style: alert, hardworking and honest; a little careful but with no received ideas or premeditated angst; and with a high-octane collective energy. In the opening Allegro movement, they were rightly playful and ebullient and never tried to force profundities when the music merely hinted at deeper emotions. During the forbidding modulation in the Allegro’s development section, the Jupiters opened up a full palette of tonal colors, a wondrous sound. They caught the Mozartean qualities of the Adagio cantabile second movement, which evokes Sarastro’s singing in “The Magic Flute,” the rituals of darkness to optimism. I loved the undercurrent of playful conspiracy in the Scherzo, as if it were a comedy of manners — perhaps involving a married couple, a sister-in-law and a mischievous, single young man. (I might be reading too much into this.) The finale was a little too careful, indicating that they wanted to push the speed and boundaries but not go off the rails.
Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Hommage a Andras Mihaly,” or the Twelve Microludes for String Quartet, Op. 13, were composed in the late 1970s and bring to mind the economy of Webern and the folk spirit of Bartok. The whole work lasts 10 minutes, with movements ranging from 17 seconds to a verbose two minutes. Born in 1926, Kurtag, a Hungarian, is barely known beyond new-music circles but adored within them for his combination of extreme compression and extreme expression — an entire novel or symphony distilled into a few seconds, a handful of notes.
Cellist McDonough introduced the Kurtag, likening him to Beethoven for using a seed to build a complex world — although with Beethoven you get a giant oak with a canopy that shades an entire city block and with Kurtag you get just the seed and feel in your bones its awesome potential. McDonough got a laugh by quoting Kurtag himself: “One note is almost enough” to tell a complete story.
And the Jupiters played the 12 Microludes beautifully, as tiny paintings in sound, from the barren, icy landscape in No. 1 to the serene nocturne of No. 5 (with soulful viola playing by Liz Freivogel) to the fraught, con legno plinks of No. 10, like hearing rain on the roof for the first time after the demise and shock of an intense love affair … or something like that. For the Jupiters, performing a cool modernist like Kurtag at their official debut is a wonderful sign of aesthetic adventure, an ears-open attitude.
After intermission came the feather-light monster, Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet in B-flat, music that’s so abstract within a narrative frame that almost every movement raises the question “What’s going on here?” The stone-deaf Beethoven was exploring sounds and timbres and concepts alone in his head.
Along with Beethoven’s other late quartets, the Op. 130 is as difficult a work, in terms of interpretation, as exists in the classical literature. It can also offer the greatest payoffs. The best groups start coming to terms with it after maturing in their own lives and after decades of working on it. The Jupiters were at their best in the second movement — a miracle of exuberant invention, where the scurrying little tune is at once silly, clever, cosmic — and in the charming fourth movement, a pastoral dance. Cellist McDonough’s Bordeaux red tone — mellow, dark and a little tubby — and openness and humanity in phrasing reminded me of a great chamber musician, cellist Bernard Greenhouse. I couldn’t get a read on violinist Meg Freivogel as a unique presence among the four, but she never let down her role.
In the Adagio molto expressivo, the fifth movement, I wished for more heft from first violinist Lee, whose thin tone and diluted (as opposed to concentrated) sound lessened the music’s impact. (The foursome had been sick with the flu earlier in the week, and perhaps that accounted for Lee’s hairline intonation problems, which one doesn’t expect from a top-tier ensemble.)
Overall, splendid and youthful playing, often insightful, always searching. And the rationale for a multi-year, in-residence partnership became clear: Spivey will nurture a high-quality young quartet and in turn they will nurture the Spivey audiences as they develop.