The Peachtree String Quartet performed its inaugural concert Sunday afternoon at the Garden Hills Recreation Center. The musicians in the new group — violinists Christopher Pulgram and John Meisner, violist Yang-Yoon Kim and cellist Jennifer Humphreys — are also members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
They have played together informally as a quartet, and Pulgram, the group’s director, says the final decision to make a formal endeavor out of it came about only three months ago. Once the four agreed upon a date when all would be available for a performance in April, it became a fast-paced scramble for Pulgram and a neighborhood friend, Barry Levine, to secure a venue, gather support and promote the event.
Their efforts proved effective. The poster for the concert cautioned that there was “limited seating,” and the recreation center’s acoustically amenable great room was set up with seats for 108. Those were completely filled, and there were people standing in the back.
The concert opened with the String Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 64, No. 6, by Franz Joseph Haydn. Written in 1790, it’s the last of Haydn’s dozen “Tost” quartets, dedicated to Johann Tost, a former violinist in Haydn’s orchestra who became a successful cloth merchant. The work includes an inventive opening Allegretto movement, a lyrical Andante theme and variations, a graceful Menuetto with a pleasant Viennese Ländler for its Trio section, then a Presto contradance as a finale.
The group’s approach to Haydn’s music was confidently extroverted and playful — thankfully so — rather than overly “precious.” For this piece, Meisner played the first violin part; Pulgram took over the first violin role for the rest of the concert.
Samuel Barber’s solitary String Quartet, Op. 11, followed. It is best known for its central Adagio movement, which the composer transcribed for string orchestra as “Adagio for Strings.” That transcription has worked its way into popular culture in a number of ways, most prominently through its use in Oliver Stone’s Academy Award-winning film “Platoon,” so it naturally now stands out among the three movements of the quartet as a whole.
But the outer movements should not be dismissed. The dramatic unison opening of the first movement harks back to the character and power of Beethoven’s string quartets. Though the Barber quartet was originally written in 1936, the last movement was revised several times; the final version was completed in 1943. It is much shorter than the other two movements, making use of material from the first to bring the work to a vigorous conclusion. The performance captured well the dramatic side of Barber’s temperament in the outer movements and his sense of heightened pathos in the Adagio.
The second half of the concert was the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1, by Felix Mendelssohn, one of three he wrote in 1837-38 and dedicated to Crown Prince Gustavus of Sweden. It opens with a full-bodied Molto allegro vivace, followed by a somewhat genteel Menuetto in the second movement, a bit of a retro nod to the previous century. An expressive Andante, opening with walking pizzicati underscoring a concise but elegant melody, also hinted somewhat at sentiments of a previous time. The piece concluded with a Presto con brio finale, played buoyantly by the quartet.
The three selections, each representing a different musical era, did not pose any aesthetic conundrums for the audience to ponder, but they proved an effective vehicle for beginning to assess the strengths of the Peachtree String Quartet and what could emerge as its signature sound, something that will come with time. The group shows genuine promise of rapidly becoming one of the city’s core classical chamber music ensembles, and as Pulgram said to a member of the audience afterward, “We’re committed to making this grow.”