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Corigliano Quartet Impresses Even Anti-Chamber Listeners

Talented and Enjoyable String Quartet Plays Less Enjoyable Pieces

By Minyoung Jang

Corigliano String Quartet

Kresge Auditorium

April 9, 2004, 8 p.m.

I’ve never been a big fan of chamber music and ensembles, but perhaps that’s because I’ve been hearing less-skilled players. After hearing the Corigliano String Quartet, I wasn’t exactly a convert, but I certainly walked away with new knowledge that chamber music can be impressive in its own way.

The string quartet began with Mozart’s “String Quartet in E Flat Major.” The performance of the first movement was solid, with a good dynamic range and thankfully void of amateurish rushing or the frenetic tempos some experienced musicians like to indulge in. All the same, it didn’t do much to change my opinion that chamber music is pleasant sounding yet ultimately boring and sleep-inducing.

The second and third movements were appropriately played, gently, and delicately. As with the first movement, it quickly became apparent that the interpretation of the piece wasn’t particularly novel or interesting, although all the accents, dynamics, and phrasing were properly observed, giving the movements a nice forward momentum.

However, it was also equally apparent that the Corigliano String Quartet was composed of strong musicians nonetheless, as they truly excelled at playing together as a group. They did a great job of bringing out countermelodies or short passages where one or two players would soar gracefully but unobtrusively over the supporting background lines laid down by two or three of the other players.

In the fourth movement, allegro vivace, they once again dazzled the audience with their cohesive style. All four performers were playing to the same internal tempo without stumbling and managed to keep it light with clean fast runs. Despite their musicianship, their performance of Mozart’s “String Quartet in E Flat Major” failed to fully capture my attention; after a while, it simply felt like similar passages were being repeated over and over again.

After the tranquil monotony of Mozart, I was rather excited to hear some untraditional chords and pronounced syncopation opening Andrew Waggoner’s “Third String Quartet.” Yet I was disappointed again soon enough because it was extremely difficult to discern a melody and they played with the same tiresome dynamic for at least a few minutes straight. The skill of the Corigliano players shone through a less than striking piece, as they occasionally emerged from chaotic chords and rhythms for a single, unified pizzicato note. Also interrupting the tedium at times was the use of harmonics, producing interesting sounds with a more metallic quality.

The second movement was also dissatisfying, as it didn’t seem to move towards anything. No climax, no denouement, simply one passage after another. However, this slower movement did a wonderful job of showcasing the gorgeous resonant sounds of the cello and viola, as well as the fact that the violinists did an admirable job keeping their stratospheric notes from being painful by keeping them well in tune.

In general, even the talent of Corigliano Quartet players couldn’t save this piece for me. I often enjoy modern classical pieces for because they tell stories or convey emotion in a dramatic and breathtaking way, but I found Waggoner’s Third String Quartet neither “Incandescent” nor “Sensual,” as the first and second movements, respectively, were marked. “Frenzied” would have been a more accurate description.

Thankfully, the Corigliano String Quartet closed the night with Mendelssohn’s “String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1,” a piece that displayed the players’ musicianship as well as being much more entertaining for the listener. The first movement was marked by good phrasing and I was especially impressed by the fact that the group seemed to be able to allow for expressive playing by each of its members, yet still come back together for lines in unison with complete ease. The background parts were written in such a way that it seemed textured and made it sound like there were definitely more than four instruments on stage. It was almost as lush sounding as the dramatic opening lines of some symphonies, quite an achievement for only four string players.

The third and fourth movements once again displayed breathtaking togetherness, as they executed group decelerandos and accelerandos effortlessly while still allowing for an expressive manner. The fourth movement in particular was enjoyable to listen to. The Corigliano Quartet followed a repeated theme of one instrument being followed by the others, one at a time, adding to the sound in layers. With each layer they would change keys, until all players entered into a fun, quick-paced sound that was like organized chaos, full of excellent syncopation and phrasing through fast runs.

By the end, I was clapping as heartily as all the other audience members and left with a new appreciation of chamber pieces and for the Corigliano String Quartet.