Concluding its sixth season of formal concerts as Emory University’s first full-time quartet-in-residence, the Vega String Quartet performed music by Beethoven, Ravel and Mendelssohn on Saturday at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.
It has been a little over a year since Dominic Salerni became the group’s latest first violinist, the second violin replacement since the quartet began its Emory residency. The other three members — violinist Jessica Shuang Wu, violist Yinzi Kong and cellist Guang Wang — are all original, having played with the group ever since they attended the Manhattan School of Music together.
Vega entered the performance circuit in 1991 and won several important competitions in 1998. Then, in 1999, it won three of the six prizes awarded at the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition in France. The quartet made its Lincoln Center debut in 2001. During the 2003-04 season, still based in New York, the group began to visit Emory to perform. In 2006 it moved to Atlanta and took up a residency at the university. In March, it was announced that the residency will continue for another five years.
Saturday’s concert opened with the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 18, No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven. The first movement is a vigorous Allegro con brio, the second a lyrical set of variations. The third is a brief Scherzo that features extensive displacement of metrical accents, giving it a particularly jaunty character. The final movement begins with a melancholy Adagio, followed by a sprightly country dance.
The performance was well stenciled, lively and characteristic of the composer’s early style, although there were a few times when the middle voices could have been allowed to be heard a little more in the balance. Afterward, one audience member was overheard to say that he had especially liked the second movement.
Beethoven was in his late 20s when he wrote that quartet. Similarly, Maurice Ravel was 28 years old when he wrote his sole String Quartet in F Major, which followed on the program.
It is the second quintessentially French string quartet ever written, the first being that of Debussy — both having shaken off the influence of German Romanticism, but Ravel even more so. Ravel’s harmonies are influenced by his modal melodic figures, and most of the work’s significant ideas are germinated from the opening measures in subtle ways.
The Vega Quartet’s rendering was lyrically impassioned in the opening movement; the mostly pizzicato second movement was ebullient. The third, with muted strings, was played with expressive introspection interspersed with occasional surging flurries and ardent outbursts. The final, the most conventional of the four movements, was given an agitated energy that moved it forward to its brisk conclusion.
After intermission, the String Quartet in F minor, Opus 80, by Felix Mendelssohn drew the concert to a close. Although it was essentially his last major work, Mendelssohn was only 38 when he composed it after the death of his sister Fanny, a crushing emotional blow for him. He died himself two months later.
The Vega Quartet captured the composer’s anxiety and inner turmoil from the work’s opening tremolos onward. Only in the slow third movement were his feelings of agitation genuinely, if briefly, abated.