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16.12.07

Formosa Quartet Takes the Strads for a Spin

In addition to its collections in book form, the Library of Congress owns several collections of instruments, including a matched string quartet of Stradivari instruments. In a tradition since 1936, the institution handed over its Strads to a young string quartet for a concert on Friday night, honoring the anniversary of the great Cremonese craftsman's death (actually December 18). (It is possible that the Library is the only institution in the country, possibly the world, to celebrate the anniversary this way for so long.) Who knows what makes a Strad sound so good -- did he use chemicals? was the wood he used altered by a mini-Ice Age? -- but they do. In the last two years, the honor has gone to the Ensō Quartet and the Jupiter Quartet, and this year it was the Taiwanese Formosa Quartet's turn. When the group won the Tenth London International String Quartet Competition in 2006, their violist and cellist were seated as principals in the San Diego Symphony. The founding cellist, Ru-Pei Yeh, has since left the quartet and joined the New York Philharmonic, replaced by Jacob Braun.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Formosa Quartet (Washington Post, December 17)
Like most of the concerts at the Library of Congress, the centerpiece of this program was the Washington premiere of a new work, a string quartet by Taipei-born Shih-Hui Chen. Based on a traditional Taiwanese melody called Mei Hua and named for it, this rewarding, intricate, and varied piece bears the hallmarks of an emerging compositional voice of significant interest. (It is only the latest of a couple critically applauded string quartets, but the first to reach my ears.) One of my reservations about trendy new music that is heavily based on folk music -- some pieces by Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun, everything by Mark O'Connor -- is that it is too transparently a recycling of those sounds. With Chen's work, by contrast, the Taiwanese melody is heard only furtively, as if it were lurking around the corner or hovering spectrally above the music. Indeed, an imagined pentatonic melody rattled through my head at intermission, even though it was never really quoted fully in Mei Hua. The folk original was evoked in fragments, with microtonal bends and other effects, obscured by dissonance in the first movement and treated with viscerally exciting rhythms and a repeated-note pulse in the second movement. The instruments were called on to make sounds more specific to Chinese music in the third movement, reminiscent of the pipa and erhu mostly. The composer herself took a well-deserved bow with the musicians.

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Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Wolf, Formosa Quartet
(January 16, 2007)
The high point of the evening was the last work, the Brahms op. 67 quartet (also reviewed on last week's concert by the Emerson Quartet, who have released a memorable recording of the Brahms set). This was musically impressive ensemble playing, with warm and precise intonation and ears-open coordination. The first movement was a thrilling play of contrasts, alternately ethereal and lively, and violist Che-Yen Chen coaxed a beautiful solo sound from the "Cassavetti," the rare 1727 Stradivarius viola in the third movement. The opening Mozart quartet, K. 590 ("Prussian") -- not the Mozart recorded on their debut disc -- had good moments, like the buoyant and subtle second-movement Allegretto, but the third and fourth movements fell victim to slight discrepancies in tempo among the players. The encore, offered as a Taiwanese pop song, was a forgettable but pleasant enough reference to the quartet's namesake, the island formerly known as Formosa.

You must wait until February for the next concerts in the free series at the Library of Congress: the Concerto Copenhagen (February 1) and the Ensemble Matheus (February 9). Judging by a rare appeal for money to support the series from Susan Vita, Chief of the Music Division, the Library is concerned about the future of its historic series. If you feel a moment of cultural largesse coming on, give the Library of Congress a call.

2 comments:

Mark said...

What a wonderful tradition. One thing that lifts my heart about this country are the posts you all do about the nooks and crannies of D.C..

bookguybaltmd said...

I agree, it was a wonderful concert, with such wonderful splendid moments (though I am afraid I did not like the new piece as much as you did). The Brahms, in particular, was spectacular and the viola part was particularly well done. The instruments truly have a wonderful sound quality, almost as though they each provide an underlying continuo to their main sound. These are truly magnificent instruments and a great treasure for Washington, indeed.