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Lydian Quartet dazzles Brandeis on “world tour”

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

March 20, 2009

<i>PHOTO BY Yuan Yao/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Yuan Yao/The Hoot

The Lydian String Quartet is one of those unfortunately overlooked cultural institutions among Brandeis undergraduates. Looking out across the sea of white heads on Saturday night in the Slosberg Music Center, one could easily forget that this was a university and not a senior citizen home. Yet the youthful vitality present in the performance itself suggested that classical music at Brandeis is geared as much toward students as older community members.

The quartet, founded in 1980, is an internationally acclaimed chamber ensemble dedicated to reinvigorating works from the classical canon while exploring contemporary pieces. The group has won ensemble prizes at important festivals in France, England, Canada and the United States, given performances in prestigious American and European concert halls, and released more than twenty musical recordings. Yet despite their worldly ambitions, the quartet feels most at home at Brandeis University, where all the members are part of the teaching faculty and regularly give performances.

Before the program began, the quartet announced that the university would be cutting back its position to half time for the following year, but that the ensemble would figure out a way to continue offering concerts to the Brandeis community and broader listening public. At a time when cutting back on the arts appears to define the university’s modus operandi, the announcement came as more troubling than shocking. Additionally, Boston based violinist Danielle Maddon would be filling in for Judith Eissenberg.

Yet from the noble, stately rhythms of the first quartet to the resounding chords of the final, the ensemble showed that they are still a musical force to be reckoned with. The program served as part of a series entitled Around the World in a String Quartet, through which the group has tackled works from Azerbaijan, China, and Iran among others. Saturday’s program was not quite so exotic, featuring works from Germany and Hungary, two of the nations most represented in the standard repertoire. Nevertheless, the exquisitely nuanced renderings of the literature transported the audience to an extraordinary place that might just as easily have been halfway around the world.

The evening began with a tumultuous yet carefully articulated reading of Beethoven’s Quartet in C Minor, one of the great master’s first compositions for the genre despite his advanced age and experience. Strains of Haydn, his great mentor, could be heard in various motifs, but the passionate Sturm and Drang of the Menuetto: Allegretto was pure Romantic Beethoven. The Lydians applied the perfect mix of delicate restraint and percussive accenting to energize the piece without betraying its underlying courtly, aristocratic tendencies.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the evening came in the form of Ernst von Dohnáyi’s Serenade in C Major, for String Trio. The Hungarian composer’s work was long neglected due to his suspected collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, but recent investigation has cleared his reputation and reinstated his importance among early modern composers. Although many of his contemporaries worked in experimental modes with avant garde leanings, Dohnáyi’s work bears more resemblance to his late romantic predecessors. That said, the triumphant, dramatic work received an electrifying jolt from the quartet’s interpretation. The Scherzo featured a wild, staggering solo violin passage that echoed in and intertwined with the other instruments in climactic intensity. And the gorgeous but troubled Tema con variazioni came to life with the ensemble’s detailed attention to dynamic shaping.

Finally, the true ode to youthfulness came with Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor, which the composer wrote at age 18. The piece was based on a love song the composer wrote, which the quartet played first along with Katherine Schram ’09. Although the tune featured a pretty melody, the song was a slight trifle compared to the piece it spawned. The flowing legato strokes of Adagio were like the musical embodiment of a rose languishing in the moonlight. The Lydians employed their full expressive potential to unlock every ounce of emotion from the piece without making it overly sentimental. From extreme sadness to ecstasy, the phrasing was just dramatic enough to move the audience’s hearts.

The Lydian String Quartet is a point of pride for Brandeis University. Though the cutting back of the members’ positions won’t be the hot topic that the closing of the Rose was, the student body should express its support for the group. They may be on a tour of the world, but as long as they stop by Slosberg, we ought to pay them the courtesy of a visit.

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