Concert Review Mesmerizing Mozart, Spellbinding Shostakovich

Audubon String Quartet Lives up to Its Fame

Audubon String Quartet

Kresge Auditorium

Friday, Feb. 23, 2007

Last Friday, MIT chamber music enthusiasts had the special opportunity to hear the highly acclaimed Audubon String Quartet perform in Kresge Auditorium. In addition to Mozart's string quintet K.515, the program also included two string quartets by Mozart (K.458) and Shostakovich (No.5). The captivating performances, the intimate music, the large and enthusiastic audience, all contributed to a decidedly worthwhile musical experience.

The Audubon String Quartet, founded in 1974, quickly established itself internationally, winning string quartet competitions and taking a groundbreaking tour through China in the early eighties. Their musicality and seamless blending were often praised by critics. However, some of their latest spotlights had less to do with music and more with a sensational court case, which threatened not only the livelihoods but also the instruments of several of the members. Fortunately, a philanthropist stepped in, and Friday's concert confirmed that the group has recovered to display its old aplomb.

Friday night's concert opened with Mozart's "The Hunt" Quartet K.458. The group rendered Mozart's playful music with utmost expressivity, showcasing a well-balanced, cohesive sound, while allowing each instrument to have an individual presence. Although the first violin traditionally plays a dominant role, Ellen Jewett avoided overpowering the rest of the group, while still contributing long charming lines in the Adagio and fiery, yet controlled chase motifs in the last movement. Akemi Takayama (second violin in this piece) and Doris Lederer (viola) gave performances which highlighted the deliciously chromatic lines of the inner voices, particularly in the Menuetto and Trio. Founding member and cellist Clyde Shaw also had numerous shining moments, not only in melodic passages (second movement), but also in accompanimental figures. Another pleasant aspect of the Mozart performance was the balance, which was never treble heavy (as often occurs due to the nature of the music and sometimes players' personalities), thereby allowing the lower voices to speak clearly.

The contrasting part of the program, Shostakovich String Quartet No.5, followed. Before the piece, Shaw explained briefly Shostakovich's musical symbolism which includes a musical spelling of his name. The artists then engaged in a fascinating detail-oriented performance, delivering Shostakovich's austere music with intense lyricism and expressivity. The dark humor, lyrical evocations, and mounting anguish typical of Shostakovich were all vividly depicted. The musicians were not just playing the music onstage, but were living in Shostakovich's bleak emotional realms.

The second half featured a solid and enjoyable rendition of Mozart's String Quintet in C Major, K.515, in the sixth and last installment of the yearlong MIT Guest Artist Series celebrating Mozart's 250th anniversary. The series featured the complete Mozart viola string quintets, performed by Music and Theatre Arts Professor Marcus A. Thompson (viola) together with six visiting string quartets in turn.

Akemi Takayama played first violin and while her playing sparkled with exuberance, it tended to stick out too much sometimes. Thompson played second viola, arguably the least exciting part, yet his clear articulation and intensity contributed synergistically to the group momentum, the overall rendition sounding fresh, ebullient, and very enjoyable. His sound blended very well in the ensemble, and even if he often played long stretches of repeated notes figurations. The highlights of this piece were the exciting dialogue between first violin and cello (first movement), the whimsically paced conversation between the first violin and first viola (slow movement) and the jovial theme of the rondo, brilliantly handled in all parts.