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Avalon String Quartet

A rising star

By Fred Choi

A recent article in the New York Times concerned the difficulty facing young string quartets in establishing themselves in the world of music. Although the repertory is large, the demand for chamber musicians is much smaller than that for orchestral musicians, and thus the competition is much more intense. In addition, it is difficult for a young string quartet to find an audience. They are rarely able to shed new light in their interpretations of the standard repertoire, and at the same time only a small minority of listeners care to hear the newest compositions. Within this difficult situation, it is reassuring to both artist and audience alike that the MIT Concerts Office regularly schedules guest quartets to perform. These concerts give young quartets the chance to perform and gain experience, as well as provide the community with high-quality music to enjoy. The Avalon String Quartet’s concert on Feb. 26 in Kresge Auditorium was overall a pleasing mix of classical and twentieth century compositions, highlighted by a stunning performance of Schuller’s “Quartet No. 3.”

The Avalon String Quartet (violinists Blaise Magniere and Mary Wang, violist Anthea Sarah Kreston, and cellist Katie Schlaikjer) opened their program with Haydn’s “String Quartet in B major, Op. 1, No. 1.” The work is pleasing to the ear and easily accessible, and the Quartet played with a tangible surety. Much of the confidence of the work relied on Mr. Magniere’s performance. As first violinist, it was his duty to lead the ensemble, while at the same time executing his more solo-like part, and he fulfilled this duty effortlessly. The rest of the Quartet provided strong accompaniment to Mr. Magniere, and during their solo parts proved to be as sure of themselves as he.

Although the Quartet played the Haydn with excellent balance and ensemble, there were times in their performance that I felt their reading was a little too muscular. During the second and fourth movements, the two Minuets, their interpretation could have been much lighter and less deliberate. Likewise, in the Finale, I found myself wishing that the extended sections of runs, such as the scales which occurred in all four parts at various times in the movement, would have been a little more off the string. Nevertheless, these are minor complaints and the performance of the Haydn quartet proved to be a nice reminder of how much more satisfying live music is than recorded.

I was most looking most forward to hearing Gunther Schuller’s “String Quartet No.3,” a serialist piece written in 1986. Familiar with the recording of the work as performed by the Emerson Quartet -- technically flawless, as is characteristic of the Quartet - I was curious as to how the Avalon Quartet’s performance would compare. The Avalon String Quartet exceeded my every expectation.

From the first gorgeous cluster of tones, I was immediately struck by the degree of passion with which the Avalon Quartet played. Their visible emotion was in such stark contrast with the courtly detachment that Haydn requires that the two complemented each other beautifully. The Quartet’s energy and conviction were astounding, and in a serialist piece (even one in the lyrical Berg as opposed to the sparse and jagged Webern tradition), such certainty is absolutely necessary --without it, the audience, many of whom have not been previously exposed to music devoid of traditional harmony, will not be convinced that serialism is indeed a valid form of music.

In the first movement the visual sight of the sixteenth note succession was riveting accompaniment to the exotic sounds. The music perfectly matched the tempo marking: “Maestoso; with great intensity.” Each detail of the ensemble was meticulously perfect, such as the cellist’s pizzicati, which ranged from massive strummed chords to delicate, shimmering pluckings of the A-string in thumb position.

The second movement’s lyricism was even more beautiful. Marked “Canzona. Adagio,” the movement featured bursts of emotion at faster tempi that could easily have sounded schizophrenic, but which the Quartet integrated seamlessly. The line of each phrase was delineated so that each change in feel felt like it was actually going somewhere.

In the third movement, the august energy of the first movement became more frantic, but yet again the Quartet demonstrated their tight grip on the structure and notes of the piece. Two small problems were apparent in the third movement: the chromatic unison passages, which were sometimes not as clearly as articulated as they could have been, and the few polyrhythmic passages (five beats against three), where the quartet lost its intensity. Of particular note in the third movement were the second violin and the viola solos. Ms. Wang played her solo well, although without any particular characterization, while Ms. Kreston tackled her fiendish viola solo with great vigor and personality.

At the conclusion there was much applause, and after accepting their bows, the Quartet motioned towards someone in the audience. He stepped forward and the applause grew louder, for here was Schuller himself. Much of the Quartet’s convincing performance may be attributed to the fact that the Quartet rehearsed with Schuller the week before their concert. Such a collaboration between artist and composer is one of the great joys of contemporary music, a genre that deserves more attention, and is well-displayed in Schuller’s quartet.

After intermission, the Quartet resumed with Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130.” I found the Quartet’s overall performance of the Beethoven to be slightly disappointing, especially when juxtaposed with their magnificent performance of the Schuller. Although the sudden shifts in mood were good, there were sections of parallel rhythms that were not in sync. Also, unity was sorely lacking in the first movement. Part of the problem may have been the cellist, who played slightly flat throughout the first movement and who retuned afterwards, only to play slightly sharp in the third movement, and forced to retune again. This complication may have thrown off the group’s ensemble.

The second movement, a light scherzo, was enjoyable, as the Quartet played at a very fast tempo but was always in control. The fifth movement, marked, “Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo,” showed off the Quartet’s excellence in slow, lyrical movements, but the phrasing was puzzling at best, distracting at worst. The first violinist truncated the last note of the phrase rather than tapering it off or letting it resonate. Throughout the movement, the first violin and cello separated the notes a little too much. The final movement was much better presented than the first, as the Quartet found themselves once more, and the Finale was a fine way to end the concert.

The Avalon String Quartet has a bright future. Recent First Prize Winners of the 1999 Concert Artist Guild Competition, the Quartet has proven to those who were in attendance at Friday’s concert that they are a quartet to look for in the future, hopefully concentrating on contemporary music, at which they excel.