For local fans of serious classical music, this month’s entry in the Montgomery College Chamber Music Series was a special treat. The Gotham String Quartet presented a performance of Beethoven’s “String Quartet opus 132 in A minor” to an appreciative audience in the beautiful college Theater Building. It is a comfortable, intimate and modern theater space with fine acoustics. Woodland’s Science and Art Center founder/director Doug Kilgore was on hand to enjoy this latest concert in the series developed by his growing organization. (Website: http://www.woodsac.org)
Introducing the program was the quartet’s first violinist, Lun Jiang. He gave a short but informative discussion on both the work and the composer. Describing the selection as a “masterpiece of Beethoven’s late period,” Jiang commented that “Great masters never follow rules.” Jiang explained the extraordinary accomplishments of Beethoven during this later period. He had become completely deaf, but was at the peak of his powers as a composer, and had an uncanny ability to mentally compose music which he, himself, could not hear.
The Gotham String Quartet members also include Jiang’s twin brother Quan Jiang on violin, Philadelphian Sheila Browne on viola and Taiwan native Cheng-Hou Lee on cello. The Jiangs were born in China. The group members are graduates of the Julliard and Manhattan Schools and were in residence at the Midori Foundation before the group formed in 1998. They have performed throughout the U.S. (including performances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall) and also in Germany, Italy and the Far East. In New York City they participated in outreach programs for school children, and in Houston they will take part in project GRAD.
As for the performance itself, no one was disappointed. The first movement “Assai Sostenuto-Allegro” was rich and melodic. The musicians were intensely focused and displayed an exquisite unity. The second movement “Allegro, ma non-tanto” began with a smooth, darting quality that reminded me of the swallows I had observed flying over Lake Woodlands earlier in the day. The talented young performers played with regal precision. The warm smile cellist Cheng-Hou Lee shared with his fellow musicians at the close of this movement was easily justified by the caliber of the performance. The attractive Ms. Browne, with long brown hair shining, looked pleased as well.
Jiang had explained at the outset that the third movement’s “Molto adagio,” written in the 1820s, was Beethoven’s way of giving thanks to God for surviving a serious illness at that time. Here, the music began with a somber and prayerful attitude and was full of subtle variations, superbly performed with impressive virtuosity. Jiang’s work as first violinist was outstanding. As the movement concludes, it seems to ascend heavenward and ends in the purest whisper. Closing passages of the five-movement work were no less satisfying. We continued to see the evident joy shared by the artists in performance. At once regal and courtly, Beethoven’s work offered both suspense and high excitement amid the dazzling dexterity of these talented performers. The audience applause was enthusiastic.
And speaking of the audience, several members offered comments. Lana Hazlett, known for her long service with the youth programs of The Woodland’s Symphony, remarked that “even if one had never heard a string quartet before, this wonderful music would still be immediately recognizable as Beethoven.” Woodlands residents Nancy and Bill Stewart enjoyed the concert. Mrs. Stewart was fascinated by the discussion of Beethoven’s hearing handicap and spoke of the related video “The Man Upstairs,” which she enjoys sharing with CISD music students in her capacity as substitute teacher. And Dorothy Elfert, resident of The Forum, had a whimsical recollection. The music reminded her of her first girlhood concert experience many years ago in a Chicago park. As Elfert tells it, she and her girlfriends were disruptive and giggling at the “funny names” on the classical program. But I am pleased to report that Mrs. Elfert was very well behaved at this performance!
(The Courier 4.2.00)