When the Catalyst Quartet appeared at Sunset Center last night, courtesy of Chamber Music Monterey Bay, we heard four fabulous musicians and a fabulous program — by any standard, a great combination. Every once in a while, we hear a concert in which the polish and refinement of the musicians’ individual mastery combined with their ability to respond to each others individual artistic skills produces a concert in which there is an inevitability about the playing. Simply said, it was difficult to imagine the works they performed being played any other way.
Last night I witnessed something I had never observed before. Normally there is a hierarchy between the two violins in a quartet — a first violin in the first chair, and a second violin in the second chair. Often the first violin has the better parts in any work they play. This is where we get the demeaning expression “playing second fiddle” in an orchestra or quartet. However, in Catalyst Quartet’s performance last night, violinist Karla Donehew Perez played first chair in the first half of the concert, and Jessie Montgomery, occupied the first chair in the second half. Bravo! We are now adding artistic equality to gender equality.
The most impressive work on the program was Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26. The quartet ranks among the greatest musical works written in the 20th-century, and it received a totally compelling performance last night. It contained drama, virtuosity, sensitive soul tugging sentiment and powerful dancelike elements (sort of like Stravinsky, but with hot sauce). Right from the opening moments we were swept up in a violent, energetic world that kept us riveted throughout five movements, each of which had its moments of special musical effectiveness. Dynamics in this quartet were very impressive. There was lots of fire and fury, but in the quietest moments, we heard many shades of pianissimo that always had substance and shape. Violinist Karla Perez produced some astonishingly pure harmonics that were dazzling.
Also tremendously effective were Piazzolla’s Suite del Angel and Heitor Villa-Lobos’ String Quartet No. 1. Again we heard quartet playing at its very best. The novelty on the program was a string quartet by Diego Vega, who was born in 1968. This is a very impressive work, full of violence and Columbian dance elements. This is a work we would like to hear again.
Responding to tumultuous applause, the Catalyst Quartet gave us one encore, Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos, in this arrangement the vocal part was assigned to violist Paul Laraia. This performance brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat.