Quartet plays Cage, coughs

By Jessie Harris

Note: The author is currently taking Music 104. His review was selected for publication by the members of that class.

The Zehetmair Quartet–four friends turned professional ensemble–made its Chicago debut Friday, Janurary 31 at Mandel Hall with a diverse program: Schumann’s String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, and Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5. Thomas Zehetmair, first violin, disabused the audience of the notion that he and the other members, Matthias Metzger (violin), Ruth Killius (viola), and Françoise Groben (cello), would be playing the performance from memory that night, reminding the crowd that everyone, even musicians, get older. Given the program’s diversity, one might expect that the Schumann, decidedly the easiest listen of the program, would conclude the night, requiring that those wishing to hear a less abstract composition to hear out the full performance until the bitter end. Instead, the placement of Schumann before Cage, allowed for a unique, if not unexpected, direct juxtaposition between pieces with opposite aims and compositional style.

Despite any nomination of Schumann’s piece as the most “traditional” of the compositions offered that night, it is one that demands agility and determination from its performers. The Zehetmair Quartet met the technical challenge with vigor, even if lacking some degree of enthusiasm for the phrasing and delineation of the piece’s melodic lines and polyphonic accompaniment; fortunately this did not characterize the piece in total, for while the cello in the final movement, the Presto, utterly lacked conviction and sensitivity, the Allegro of the introduction concluded with wonderful playing by Groben. Overall the performance, like the piece itself, successfully pleased and quelled the crowd without daring or significance.

The second piece, Cage’s tongue-in-cheek String Quartet in Four Parts, could be characterized as everything the Schumann was not, for better or worse; it is a philosophical standpoint that forces an aesthetic into music rather than capitalizing off of what tradition and custom demand. It is a piece, which declares silence as an integral part and thus commands the attention of the audience. It transfers the unsettled silence of the players onstage to the sudden hush among themselves–a task to which they readily adhered, reserving well-deserved coughs and shuffles to the moments between movements. If audience participation in such a piece is indicative of the success of a performance, so it was on Zehetmair’s debut. They played Cage’s quartet with attention and devotion, relegating themselves to the sound and silence of the music as Cage himself attempted to remove his presence from the composition. Indeed, Zehetmair related the feeling of distance most strongly in the third movement, Nearly Stationary, with unified, near industrial sounding chords, reminiscent of a train or fog horn sounding for its own gratification into the dark silence of night. However, all of this experimental tediousness inevitably begins to feel as real tediousness does, as I overheard one man speak for his son, “I don’t know if he could stand it, but at least he was polite.” And for this, Zehetmair received applause, whether out of politeness or gratitude, sustained so long as to permit them to make a second bow before intermission.

Lastly, Zehetmair performed Bartok’s dense and complex String Quartet No. 5, combining the technical difficulty of the Schumann with the opacity of the Cage quartets. They seemed to take to heart the maxim in performance that the first and last elements are the only ones that the audience will remember, for the second through the fourth movements were truly unremarkable. Despite good moments of interpretive tension provided by the violins and overall decent dynamics, the playing lacked conviction and a clear conception of phrasing. The superbly powerful effect of the sharp staccato chords in the Andante movement was offset by Zehetmair’s failure to play in unison–what should have been crisp and jutting was instead ill-defined. Holding true to the “performer’s maxim,” however, they completed the piece as they started it: with high energy, holding the lines together well, adding at times remarkable sensitivity and expression. The liveliness of the finale lived up to its name, Allegro Vivace, and the execution of its animated harmonic progression more than compensated for the transitional middle passages.

The finale seemed to leave everyone exhausted, and despite calls for an encore Zehetmair seemed to know better, repeatedly returning onstage for another bow, but refusing to grant another morsel.