Avalon String Quartet
The Music Guild
Cal State Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall
Long Beach, CA
March 4, 2014
Haydn: String Quartet Op 20 No 6 in A Major
Prokofiev: String Quartet No 2 Op 92
Dvorak: String Quartet No 14 in Ab Major Op 105
LA Music Review: I Found My Love with Avalon
By Tony Frankel, for Stage and Cinema, published on March 6, 2014
Based in Chicago where they have been the quartet-in-residence at the Northern Illinois University of Music in DeKalb since 2007, The Avalon String Quartet offered patrons of The Music Guild such a seamless performance that any catch-all adjectives—“brilliant,” “kudos”—fail to elucidate my experience. For once, my notebook was set aside and I let myself get lost in three String Quartets by Haydn, Prokofiev, and Dvoøák.
The Quartet formed in 1995 at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, and two of its original members remain: Blaise Magniere, violin and Marie Wang, violin. This is not just a world-class quartet but contains members from around the world: Magniere was born in France, Wang is Chinese-Canadian, violist Anthony Devroye was born in Belgium and raised in the U.S., and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee moved here from his native Taiwan while in high school. This is one of the most meticulously amalgamated ensembles I have seen. The training of these focused collaborators—namely with the Juilliard, Emerson, and Vermeer Quartets—consistently shows itself in elegance, clarity, blend, and give-and-take. They’re polished, vibrant, and straightforward but never cheeky.
Haydn’s String Quartet in A major, Op. 20, no.6 is the last in a series of six that Haydn composed in 1772, known as the “Sun” quartets. Before this Op. 20 set, Haydn had already written some 22 quartet pieces, but he set the form in a new direction here, as if these works were the rising sun shining a light for future composers. Frankly, Haydn can be downright dull, but this series shows him turning from that frothy divertimento style of chamber music towards the intimate and expressive style that qualified the string quartet as a substantial and serious form of music. Yet Avalon didn’t play it as an important and inventive piece of music (for the time it was written anyway). Even with the A major’s comical and chipper mood, there was a robust seriousness combined with a refined impartiality to the close-part writing and fugal movements that rendered the work fresh-sounding. The first two movements emphasize the role of the first violin, and Magniere displayed virtuosic skill without resorting to a superfluous vibrato.
Prokofiev’s three-movement Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 92 uses Kabardinian Folk Song themes, which was unusual for him, but there is his trademark style of unique harmonization. The folky character is supported by an imitation of oriental plucked and percussion instruments, combined with an imaginative use of aural effects. Avalon’s coordinated articulation, notably Lee on cello, was impressive enough, but they even brought coloring into the proceedings. Lee leapt into the third movement, the passage starting with a hurdling cello solo, with a gorgeous tone (I believe I could also hear him humming while in the groove á la Glenn Gould). I love how this part quickly becomes a tutti frantic pandemonium, and it may be possible that Prokofiev was showing off.
The evening concluded with Dvoøák’s Quartet in A-flat major, Op. 105, which received a sturdy and penetrating interpretation. Completed in 1895, his final string quartet (or second-to-last, depending on publication date) marked a turning point for the composer. Dvoøák had just returned to Bohemia from America and would devote himself to writing more programmatic pieces such as symphonic poems and operas. The A-flat is a work of an organic assemblage where melodious flotsam and jetsam transform in stimulating and surprising ways. Dance-like themes flow out of the deep harmonies of the opening movement’s unhurried introduction (which was accompanied by a woman playing with an empty candy wrapper in the second row—really?). Syncopated rhythms and a moving three-quarter tune give the second movement an enormous array of color, which Avalon handled with poise.
Programming is key with any quartet, and the wide array of selections was a treat. Devroye contextualized the event with a beautiful speech about all three composers being displaced from their homeland.