Photo by Erica Horn
Passionate enthusiasm and youthful vitality added a heightened dimension to Chamber Music Monterey Bay’s presentation of the Ensō String Quartet at Sunset Center last night. The four young players, violinists Susie Park & Ken Hamao, violist Melissa Reardon and cellist Richard Belcher, are seasoned masters of their craft and treated us last night to some of the finest quartet playing I have ever heard. It was a remarkable combination of style, refinement and artistry in equally generous amounts.
CMMB’s Artistic Director Erica Horn speaking to the audience before the concert announced that this is the last season that these four gifted musicians will be performing together as the Ensō Quartet, since future musical opportunities will be sending them in different artistic directions. Although this will be a loss to the specialized world of quartet playing, we can safely predict that each of these talented young artists will find a high degree of success in their future separate careers.
The program chosen by the Ensō Quartet for this concert was uniquely integrated around and influenced by Beethoven’s late Quartet, Op. 132 in A Minor. The first work on the program, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor was composed at the time the eighteen-year-old Mendelssohn was intensely studying the late Beethoven quartets. Not surprisingly, Mendelssohn reveals this stylistic influence, especially in his use of motivic development, plus occasional contrapuntal and fugal references.This is a charming and exciting work, and it received a charming and exciting performance that seemed inevitable — I couldn’t imagine it played any other way.
The most eagerly anticipated work on the program was Dialogue, by Paul Moravec, written for the Ensō Quartet and premiered by them at Music Mountain Festival in Connecticut in 2015. This brief eight-minute work turned out to be an homage to the Festival’s founder, Jacques Gordon, violinist and leader of the Gordon String Quartet. As it turned out, we had an opportunity to hear examples of the artistry of the Gordon String Quartet, since Moravec’s work is a multi-media creation involving the Ensō Quartet members playing live against recorded selections of passages from Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. The opening moments of the work featured selections from the Gordon Quartet’s 1930s performance of Beethoven’s slow movement, against which we heard the Ensō players’ tremolos, pizzicatos and further extended development. This brief work turned out to be surprisingly effective, and if the blending of the two performances occasionally left us in doubt who was playing what, that was one of the mysterious pleasures of Moravec’s work. This is a piece I would love to hear again.
After intermission we finally heard the great Beethoven String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, the seminal work that had influenced everything that had gone before on this program. Once again we heard the amazingly precise ensemble playing of this remarkable group. Intonation was absolutely dead on, the rhythmic precision of the individual players was fabulous, and the expressive excitement was so overwhelming that at the conclusion of the final Allegro appassionato movement the audience was totally boisterous with its standing ovation, bravos and relentless applause.
Additionally, I think we all were feeling a tinge of regret that these young musicians are going their separate ways. This is our loss, but what a great opportunity it was to hear them as the Ensō String Quartet on this occasion.