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Parker Quartet Does It Again

available at Amazon
Jeremy Gill, Chamber Music, Parker String Quartet et al.
(Albany Records, 2008)
The Parker String Quartet continues to rise to the top of my list of favorite string quartets. Last heard in December at the Library of Congress, and on many satisfying concerts before that, the group came to the Mansion at Strathmore on Monday evening, for the second part of a mini-series dedicated to the work of composer Jeremy Gill. The program opened with a Haydn quartet (op. 20, no. 5, in F minor), heard just this past February from the Quatuor Ébène at the Library of Congress. I liked the Ébène's take on the Haydn piece more: the Parkers took the first movement just a hair too fast, which seemed to cause some minor intonation issues and scratchiness in the first violin here and there, and the first violin's operatic flights of fancy in the third movement were too much in the background here. Still, it was lovely Haydn, rarely forced in tone or rhetoric, with a melancholy Menuetto paired with a more dance-like major-mode trio, the latter enlivened by folk music-like accelerations and decelerations. The concluding fugue was played sotto voce and without vibrato, opening up in scope only after the pedal point midway through.

In all of their performances, the Parker Quartet has played pieces from all periods with admirable grace, but none seems more in their wheelhouse than contemporary music. The group has collaborated for some time with American composer Jeremy Gill (b. 1975, Harrisburg, Pa.), and they have been touring with his new, hour-long string quartet, Capriccio (2012), which was commissioned by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program and premiered by them last March. The work is episodic by its nature, a series of 27 movements in two large parts, and hard to classify: capriccio, after all, usually signifies a series of unrelated ideas that come into the composer's mind by chance. It is held together, Gill hopes, by the technical idea that underlies it, each movement being an exploration of one aspect of the production of sound on string instruments and, by extension, of the meaning of music -- the composer himself described it as "a deconstructed Caesar salad." Many of the movements are engaging and finely crafted, although it is hard to say that there is enough of an overarching idea that binds it into one work that compels a complete listening. String quartets could just as easily take movements from it to play as encores, which indeed the Parker Quartet has also reportedly done.

Other Articles:

Joan Reinthaler, Parker Quartet meets the challenge of Jeremy Gill’s music in Strathmore performance (Washington Post, April 2)

Emily Reese, The Parker Quartet perform at Classical MPR and discuss their upcoming concert (Minnesota Public Radio, March 7, 2013)
That being said, the piece received an optimal performance from the Parkers, with each player rising beautifully to the challenges imposed on each instrument. Like many recent composers, Gill focused on many extended techniques, including wood-of-the-bow effects, complex harmonics (all so perfectly tuned in this performance), near-bridge or near-fingerboard tone, multiple stops, left-hand pizzicati, "Bartók" pizzicati, and so on. The string instruments, however, were really made to produce a glowing legato sound, the one that composers now tend to avoid, and the piece shone most when in that mode, usually in extensive quotations from or adaptations of earlier music. In all of it, the Parker Quartet played with impeccable technique and dedication.

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