Tanglewood: Ébène Quartet Classical masters get hot and cool

Saturday August 18, 2012

Special to the Eagle

LENOX -- The Ébène Quartet is cool, even when it's hot.

The French string ensemble returned to Tanglewood Thursday night for its second visit, this time adding its signature jazz and pop arrangements to standard fare by Mozart and Tchaikovsky. The connection between styles was unmistakable. The hotter the old masters got, the cooler they were.

The appeal of jazz to classical musicians, and vice versa, has been going on a long time, and the Ébène is clearly so versatile that it can do whatever it wants, however it wants. What was new here -- or relatively new -- was a manifestation of a growing trend: the erasure of lines between classical and popular styles by younger generations of musicians (especially heard in the work of young composers).


After a half of the program devoted to the classics, the Ébène (ebony, as in clarinet) finished with a set of jazz and Beatles standards, plus its own electric arrangement of the "Pulp Fiction" soundtrack. Segregation of genres in programming was maintained. In performing style: Well, that was a different matter.

In Ozawa Hall, the playing in both departments enjoyed impressive unity, blend and commitment. The players also seemed unusually personable. But the emphasis on individuality of approach and striking effect in the jazz-pop repertoire also marked the classics.

Mozart's Quartet in D minor, K. 421, underwent a constant push-pull effect through added emphasis on rhythm, tempo and dynamics. Things weren't just fast or slow, loud or soft; they were faster or slower, louder or softer, in sometimes sudden alteration.

This quartet is one of Mozart's most introspective, melancholic works. The effect of the exaggerations was to call attention to striking moments rather than the overarching narrative -- in other, words, to sap rather than heighten the mood. The waltzlike rhythm given the middle section of the minuet, while attractive in itself, seemed to have little to do with the stormy outer sections. Remarkable playing argued against itself.

In the Tchaikovsky quartet, the affecting moments, such as a gentle hush given to the famous andante cantabile, were similarly offset by exaggerations elsewhere. Attacks weren't so much delivered as pounced upon. The uphill-downhill ride culminated in a manic rush to the end.


A large audience clearly loved all this, and it was easy to see why. In a restless time when pop culture more and more rules the day, restless performances of the old and new seemed just right.


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