Tuesday October 9, 2012

PITTSFIELD - Who remembers the Galimir String Quartet?

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich remembers. In honor of the pioneering Viennese ensemble, she composed her quartet "Voyage," which had its premiere Sunday afternoon at South Mountain. In the chamber series’ final concert of the season, the piece proved an instant success.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet remembers. It performed the premiere, and violinist Scott St. John spoke briefly about the players’ debt to violinist Felix Galimir, one of the founders, and violinist Louis Krasner, the husband of another founder. Later in life, they taught prominently at Marlboro and Tanglewood, respectively, among other institutions.

Spoken of in awe by musicians, the Galimir quartet was formed in 1927 by three sisters and a brother. It championed music by leading composers of the day, including Schoenberg and Berg. In 1936, the Nazi threat forced the Jewish siblings into exile, eventually in the United States.

Zwilich, who was on hand for the premiere, has enjoyed a long run of performances, commissions and awards, including the first Pulitzer to a woman composer (1983) and a star turn in "Peanuts." She was attracted to the Galimir by a picture in a 1930s review. She writes:

"I was struck by the beautiful bow arms and the most serious but optimistic young faces (they looked to me like teenagers) and I was almost overwhelmed by the promise, the tragedy and the triumph represented by these gifted people."

"Voyages," she says, was her personal journey back into those years. The commission for the work was one in a series by South Mountain, this time joined by a group of outside patrons. Like Zwilich’s other works, the 11-minute piece is easily approachable by an audience - the South Mountain audience burst into a noisy ovation - yet tough fiber lies below the surface.

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Perhaps it was only by association, but the writing seemed to recall the Vienna of the Galimirs’ time. It opened with the echo of a waltz and went on to evoke the Second Viennese School -- especially Berg -- in its melodic contours, irregular meters, slightly acid harmonies and bold use of pizzicato.

A lot of music is crammed into four interlocking sections that roughly correspond to traditional quartet form. Indeed, much of the overall appeal is the invocation of tradition amid fresh areas of expression. A reprise of the last section served as the afternoon’s encore.

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In "Voyage" and Beethoven’s early Opus 18, No. 6, and Dvorak’s late Opus 105, the St. Lawrence delivered youthful vigor, clarity and enthusiasm that belied its 23 years of existence, which began in Canada.

The Beethoven performance was notable for its dramatic highlighting of contrasts, including precipitous changes of rhythm and dynamics. A strain of eeriness in the adagio provided a foretaste of the "malinconia" outbreaks in the finale.

The players’ robust execution and bright tone seemed less suited to the Dvorak work, cleansing it of romantic warmth. While revealing the music in its essentials, the performance took on a somewhat clinical air.