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The Jerusalem Quartet at the Libr

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, String Quartets 1,4,6,8,9,11,
Jerusalem Quartet
Harmonia Mundi

Although there seems to be a perennial spring for great young string quartets, and though they bloom often and in delightful frequency in Washington, a concert given by the Jerusalem Quartet is still something special. Perhaps that impression is partly colored by the Jerusalem Quartet's greater visibility thanks to their recording contract with Harmonia Mundi – and I admit that they have impressed me more on record than the last time I saw them (good though as they were) at the Terrace Theater. (Their first Shostakovich release, for one, is stupendous; their second was just released and I have much enjoyed it so far.) But artists are best measured in performance and the Library of Congress played host – together with the Israeli Embassy – to their Washington return last Wednesday.

On the program were Beethoven’s op.18 No.1, Tzvi Avni’s “Summer Strings” for string quartet, and Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet. Just a few notes into the Beethoven it was clear this would be a memorable, exquisite performance. With cohesion and a wonderful round, clean, burnished sound, they reminded me of a big orchestra doing Classical repertoire extraordinarily well… it had that combination of ease and saturation. Krips’ Mozart with the Concertgebouw came to mind. It sounded like Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven all at once, slightly old fashioned, gorgeous. There was agility, detail, and rhythmic momentum, but it wasn’t driven to the brink nor ever dainty. Romantic in tone, but light on its feet, only an extremist Period Performance Practice proponent could have had any objections.

The Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato showed that Messrs. Pavlovsky (first violin), Bressler (second violin), Grosz (viola), and Zlotnikov (cello) were equally at home with more indulgent feelings, while the Scherzo: Allegro molto was executed with the most ind

Roughly at this point the performances was interrupted and effectively terminated by an errant fire alarm that went off at the Library of Congress. The media release from the Jerusalem Quartet’s record label states that

[m]embers of the JSQ share […] a stint in the military and at least some political intrigue. […]. They now enjoy the status of Distinguished IDF [Israel Defense Forces], playing for troops trice weekly when the JSQ is in Israel. The Israel Press Service reports that the quartet had gotten grief because of its name in countries not entirely sympathetic to Israel’s foreign and domestic policies, but politics has interfered only once with the quartet’s music making, and that was when a group of angry Palestinian students succeeded in stopping a performance in Manchester, England.

Make that Two. Because that fire alarm didn’t likely activate itself on Wednesday. A shockingly clumsy introductory speech by the Israeli Ambassador was possibly the cause for some politically motivated jerk (if you had heard that Beethoven and were ripped out of it prematurely, you’d assign worse names to the individual, still) to sabotage the concert. If it was indeed not just an innocently accidental alarm, the person who pulled the fire alarm deserves our ire. But even so, the stage should never have been turned into a platform for crude public diplomacy in the first place. I paraphrase from the Ambassador’s speech: “We continue to sing and dance, even as we are under attack from all sides. We need to defend ourselves, but we’ll still make beautiful music.”

Those are lines that are perfectly appropriate for a speech given, or concert held, at the auditorium of AEI or an AIPAC event. They probably were not well chosen for the Library of Congress, where music generally does the speaking, not politicians. The very presence of the Jerusalem Quartet (and their program) was (successful) public diplomacy – the kind of cultural diplomacy that countries should engage more in. To go beyond that, to really rub in the propaganda aspect of the event, was unnecessary and arguably in bad taste. Perhaps the lesson that the best cultural diplomacy is, against all instincts, subtle, can be learned from Beethoven interruptus.

The concert was memorable, though, as the audience and musicians crowded the sidewalk between the Captiol and the Library on a moist Wednesday night.


Anonymous said...

Would the reviewer have included critique of the "political" aspect of the introduction were it not for the presumed saboteur? I think not. And the fact that he does is a political statement itself, and one which itself should be rejected as taking sides in a conflict he himself introduces. Please stick to the music.

jfl said...

I left the comment section open on this review (I usually don't, on reviews), precisely because I figured that such comments might be forthcoming.

I was not unaware that my elaborate mentioning of the incident at the LoC might be construed as political in-and-of-itself. But not only am I *trying* not to take sides, I am perfectly legitimate in criticizing the "abuse of platform" that occurs when a concert is misused for propaganda that goes beyond the music... be it through speeches or sabotage. Criticism thereof is not itself political.

Stick to the music is all fine... but then there wasn't much music to stick to, because of the events. The alternative would have been no review at all... which you may possibly have preferred. Alas, I chose not to let this pass unmentioned, because the concert exemplified something dear to my heart (cultural diplomacy & Beethoven) and something I rather dislike (*clumsy* cultural diplomacy & violence done upon Beethoven).

I am on record for criticizing long (usually boring) speeches before concerts, and I am on record criticizing political statements in or before concerts. I hate them, even if I agree with the point the artist/speaker is/are making... because I didn't go to a concert to hear someone's political blather. I get enough of it when I go to AEI, Heritage, Cato, Brookings, Carnegie, et al.. True, I might not *mind* going to one of those think-tanks and the being surprised with a string quartet... (as long as the Scholars aren't playing it, because they are not likely any good at it), but that's just my double standard readers will have to live with.