September 20 Dover Quartet

Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The Dover Quartet, from left to right: Joel Link, Camden Shaw, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Bryan Lee (photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Dover Quartet, in Syracuse debut, shows poise, polish, precision and promise

The ensemble of recent Curtis grads, fresh off its impressive sweep of the 2013 Banff Competition, opens SFCM’s 65th season in convincing style

By David Abrams

Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music kicked off its 65th anniversary season with a gamble of sorts. Instead of engaging an established, big-name chamber ensemble to start the new season, as has been its custom, SFCM opted instead for youth and promise.

The “gamble” paid off. The Dover Quartet — each member in his/her mid-20s and recent graduates of the venerable Curtis Institute of Music — delivered a tightly knit and well-disciplined performance whose level of artistry belies the ensemble’s youth and limited performing experience. Moreover, Saturday’s program of quartets by Beethoven, Dvořák and the lesser-known Viktor Ullmann could stand tall in the company of the most seasoned string quartets on today’s circuit.

Dover captured the attention of the chamber music world only recently, following its convincing capture of first prize in the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition. Banff, the prestigious triennial competition that will next be held in 2016, helped launch the careers of several past winners, including the Jupiter, Miró, Daedelus and Colorado Quartets. (Dover’s outstanding performance of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 2 “Razumovsky” Quartet, taped live at the competition’s final round, can be accessed here.)

But Dover did its predecessors one better — capturing not only first prize but all three of the competition’s special prizes as well. This season (2014-15), Dover will play about 100 concert engagements throughout North America and Europe. It also holds the distinction of being the first quartet-in-residence at the Curtis Institute. Syracuse is fortunate to have heard this group at a time when it’s still affordable.

Saturday’s program opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18 no. 5, an amiable work dating from the composer’s “first period” and modeled after Mozart’s Quartet (K. 464), in the same key.

The opening Allegro proved a harbinger of good things to come, with crisply articulated rising eighth-note figures and elegant execution of the grace-notes figures. The third movement (Andante cantabile) theme and variations were especially pleasing, with each variation affording the listener an opportunity to focus on a different instrumentalist. (I was particularly impressed with the dark and richly hued sound of violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt.) The players demonstrated great precision of timing in the briskly paced contrapuntal four-note motif that permeates the fourth movement Allegro, and captured the moment when they unleashed their collective fury in the rough-and-tumble development section.

Professional string quartets tend to produce uniquely identifiable sounds that give each ensemble a unique tonal identity. While it may be a bit early to make sweeping generalizations about Dover’s “signature” sound, its playing in the Beethoven hints at a bright, well-blended homogenous tone marked by a strongly defined upper voice — compliments of first-chair violinist Joel Link.

With his handsome tone, flawless technical facility, melodic grace and impeccable intonation, Link possesses all the qualities you’d expect in a string quartet’s first-chair player. His large and confident sound infuses a treble-dominated sonority to the ensemble that is well suited to Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven, as could readily be seen in the opening work on the program. Such a blend is less well suited, however, to more dramatic works — such as the Viktor Ullmann Quartet that followed. A slightly darker tone, one more heavily anchored by cello, could have added more bite to the sarcasm of Ullmann’s Shostakovich-inspired Presto movement, and more drama to the explosive climactic section of the Largo movement. It is well to remember, however, that Dover’s sound is still a work in progress. I’ll be anxious to see how that sound develops over the course of another season or two.

Ullmann’s String Quartet No. 3, set in one continuous movement divided into sections that mirror the traditional multi-movement structure of a classical quartet, is a deserving though little-known (and rarely played) work championed by Dover.

The Czech composer studied with Zemlinsky and, for a short time, Schoenberg. Though both his parents had converted from Judiasm to Catholicism before he was born, Ullmann was nevertheless sent by the Nazis to the ghetto at Theresienstadt (outside Prague) in 1942 — where he amazingly wrote some 23 works during the internment, including the present quartet. Tragically, Ullmann and his wife were transferred two years later to Auschwitz, where on Oct. 16, 1944, they perished in the camp’s gas chambers.

In terms of style and harmonic framework, the opening movement of Ullmann’s listener-friendly String Quartet No. 3 blends elements from Post-German Romanticism and Impressionism (or at least an abstract sense of Impressionism), with hints of Ravel and Delius. Most of the drama in this work is concentrated in the two inner movements, including a high-amphetamined second (Presto) movement that is at once sardonic and contemptuous, recalling the biting sarcasms of Shostakovich’s string quartets. The third (Largo) movement, also reminiscent of Shostakovich, is especially touching — culminating in a dirge-like ending that suggests a mood of utter resignation.

Dover gave this work all the energy and gravitas it deserves, injecting each contrasting mood with an appropriate and convincing sense of conviction. It’s clear from their performance here that the players have adopted this piece as their own, carrying the torch to a new generation of listeners. What a shame neither of Ullmann’s two earlier string quartets has survived.

The program closer, Dvořák’s Quartet No. 11 in C Major, provided a worthy vehicle with which to showcase the solid balance of the ensemble’s two inner voices (second violin and viola). Second violinist Bryan Lee and van de Stadt crafted a consistently well-balanced interplay of parts both in the work’s two outer movements, adding solid mid-range support. Link got a chance to show his wares in the snappy Rondo finale — a real foot-tapper whose flashy 16th-notes provided ample opportunity to observe the violinist’s formidable fingerwork skills. 

Also impressive was Dover’s superb sense of pitch, both in this work and throughout the evening. Had the players not re-tuned prior to the second (Poco adagio) movement, I was prepared to accept that their instruments were equipped with a magical device that regulates the tuning pegs as they played. 

Saturday’s SFCM concert marked the organization’s return to the venue of the H.W. Smith Auditorium, whose superior acoustics and greater seating capacity proved a fitting anniversary present. The newly renovated auditorium, with its comfortable new seats, air conditioning, polished floors and expanded aisles that afford the listener lots of room to socialize during intermission, seats about 800 — roughly twice as much as the older venue.

To celebrate the increased space, and to help fill the extra seats, SFCM this season is granting free admission to all full-time students. For the 65-year-old chamber music organization, infusing youth into its otherwise aging audience, is — like engaging the Dover Quartet — a gamble worth taking.

Details Box:
Who: Dover Quartet
What: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: H.W. Smith Auditorium, 1130 Salt Springs Rd., Syracuse NY
When: September 20, 2014
Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission
Website: http://syracusefriendsofchambermusic.org
Next concert: Neave Piano Trio, Oct. 25
Tickets: Regular $20; senior $15; full-time students free

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