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A Thin Veneer of Musicality

Vermeer Quartet Fails to Reach Musical Heights

By Amy Lee

Vermeer Quartet

Kresge Auditorium

March 7, 8 p.m.

I thought the night couldn’t get much more exciting when I noticed that Professor Arthur P. Mattuck sitting two seats over from me in Kresge. By the end of the concert, the Vermeer Quartet proved me right.

The heavily lauded string quartet admittedly has the requisite good technique professional musicians must have, but to truly stand out, the act of creating music should always go beyond training. Aside for a few rare times, the quartet never created a peak together, but instead worked against each other by reaching their own heights at separate times.

Nevertheless, the sound that came out was still of high quality, which is a potential explanation of why their CD of Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” was a Grammy nominee.

From the beginning, the Vermeer Quartet was noticeably anticlimactic. The four musicians looked like they were literally basking under the soft spotlight in the middle of the stage, lounging back in their chairs with their legs slightly sprawled out.

When they began, each musician’s remarkable control of their tone quality and bow strokes was most noticeable. This was especially observed in the performance of Mozart’s Quartet in A Major, K.464, where each note was delicately played with light marcato, and repeated eighth notes were meticulously steady. Even when the musicians were playing high up on the fingerboard, the sound was pleasantly full. However, at many times, the piece was treated by the musicians as more of a procedural warm-up exercise than the gracefully poetic song that it is.

The players’ intonation was showcased next in the Quartet No. 2, by Benjamin Britten, a chillingly melodic piece that utilizes dissonant parallel lines to create a haunting atmosphere. I especially liked the cello’s cadenza in the third movement, which featured almost jazzy chords and improvisational feel.

Unfortunately, throughout the concert, communication between the members of the quartet was lacking. It was almost heart-wrenchingly disappointing to watch the first violinist restrain himself from jumping out of his chair from the emotional quality of the music while the other musicians kept their heads buried in their stands.

This was worst in Debussy’s Quartet in G Minor. The remarkable bow stroke I raved about from the Mozart also came back to haunt me like coffee and onion indigestion in the Debussy. Where the musicians should have used a heavier bow stroke, the pervasive tenuto instead possessed every note, giving a much too languid feel to the piece.

However, of the three pieces, the Debussy quartet was still most well suited for these musicians, who seem to play best in solo situations.

Rollicking pizzicato introduced the second movement, the charmingly secretive melody of the upper strings supported by the viola’s insistent eighth notes. The first violin then took over the repeating eighth notes, providing a mischievous pixie-like dance quality to the song. As the piece transitioned through trills into another one of Debussy’s simple but exotically pleading melodies, the first violinist again took over the show, coupling well-placed hints of a glissando with the lingering notes.

The third movement was especially notable, where the whispery dream-like opening rippled along sensually until the viola boldly entered with a sweetly ambiguous line. The stirring theme was then taken by the first violinist, who played with a pleading intensity. This motif was then delivered to the cellist, who started off the richly deep reply with much potential, but then ended his line too quickly, with a disheartening, dull note.

This extreme contrast from the cellist’s earlier virtuosity nagged at me for the rest of the concert; I have yet to understand why he went from playing with so much flair in the Britten to treating the Debussy theme so clumsily.

It was during select times like this one that I felt even more frustrated with the Vermeer Quartet, who clearly have potential to be amazing but instead refuse to show that they actually enjoy playing the music.