August 1, 2014

The Moscow String Quartet: Music Meets the Soul

 

How does one express in words what one experiences most deeply?

PHOTO BY CHARLES BERSTEIN

The Moscow String Quartet: Music Meets the Soul

Two performances by the Moscow String Quartet, each attended by more than 100 people, transformed the Mountain Mermaid into a world class concert hall. The event was presented by the Da Camera Society.

Sunday morning, January 8, dawned bright and crisp. The rising sun brushed Topanga’s mountains with a patina of gold, the breeze whispered its secrets, and a red-tailed hawk rode the thermals flaunting the brightest red I’ve ever seen in the wild.

How can one be any happier? The heart would burst with joy with one more beautiful experience.

That afternoon, the Da Camera Society brought the Moscow String Quartet to the Mountain Mermaid and continued the morning’s transcendental joy.

The quartet is composed of four women: Eugenia Alikhanova, founder of the quartet and first violin, a 1736 Guarneri del Gesù violin; Galina Kokhanovskaia, second violin, a 1698 Stradivarius; Tatiana Kokhanovskaia, who performs on a 1793 viola of the Italian master, Decanetton; and Olga Ogranovitch, who in 1988, obtained a 1723 Sanctus Seraphin cello that she has used ever since.

They each brought their inordinate virtuosity, talent, and musical acumen to bear on the program of Mozart, Borodin and Shostakovitch, “two superb professional [composers],” Mozart and Shostakovitch, and “one inspired amateur,” Borodin, Byron Adams, Ph.D., Scholar in Residence for the Da Camera Society, reveals in the program’s Music Notes.

One satisfaction of a string quartet is the intimate experience of a small group in a small space (about 100 people attended each of the two performances).

Instruments that support but necessarily get lost in a full orchestra are showcased and the lucky audience of a string quartet becomes witness to the full capability of each artist and instrument on its own, while flawlessly flowing into extraordinary ensemble playing.

For instance, the cello came to life in the third movement of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 in D and nothing else existed outside of it. Of course, that was true for the whole piece, but hearing the cello spotlighted was a delectable treat.

The Mermaid’s Gail McDonald, sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered, “Can’t you just taste it? It just goes right through you.”

Indeed.

PHOTO BY BILL BUERGE

The Moscow String Quartet: Music Meets the Soul

The quartet of four women (center left to right), first violinist Eugenia Alikhanova, founder of the quartet, plays a 1736 Guarneri del Gesł violin; second violinist Galina Kokhanovskaia with a 1698 Stradivarius; Tatiana Kokhanovskaia, performs on a 1793 Italian Decanetton viola; and Olga Ogranovitch, on a cherished 1723 Sanctus Seraphin cello, brought their inordinate virtuosity, talent, and musical acumen to bear on a program of Mozart, Borodin and Shostakovitch.

According to Adams, Mozart, when confronted with King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia’s commission to compose six quartets featuring the cello, found it “no end of trouble, as it required him to rethink the traditional balance of the string quartet. Of the six, he completed only three that were published just months after [his] untimely death in 1791.”

In Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D, the violin introduces and carries the romantic melodies that invite the cello, the second violin and the viola to continue, each producing the most expressive depth of tone I’ve ever heard.

It would be so easy to overplay the sentimentality of this piece, whose derivative popular songs, “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” and “This is My Beloved,” are familiar to many, “cannibalized,” as they were, says Adams, for the American musical, Kismet.

The quartet played with a clarity and lyricism that let the music speak for itself.

There is no way I would consider myself qualified to review music. I love all sorts of music; my ear can be appreciative but is not especially educated. It took an effort for me to appreciate the atonal compositions of Prokofiev or Bartok when I briefly studied piano and I never progressed very much beyond the simplest compositions.

So when it came to the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 1 in C, I was hard pressed to appreciate it beyond the extraordinary skill, energy and virtuosity it took to perform the piece. It felt too much like math, so I listened politely as I was taught to do when confronted with something I didn’t understand.

Naivité and ignorance notwithstanding, and with sources at my fingertips, I learned that Shostakovich is “remembered as the greatest Russian composer to follow Igor Stravinsky.”

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that these women are renown as not only “one of the major Russian chamber ensembles of today,” but “passionate promoters of 20th century Western music in Russia and contemporary Soviet music in the West.”

They were born and trained in the former Soviet Union, graduated from the Moscow Conservatory and Gnessin Musical Institute in Moscow and met in the class of renowned cellist Valentin Berlinsky of the Borodin Quartet.

They went on to international acclaim when they won the Leo Weiner International Quartet Competition in Budapest, Hungary.

“Winning a prize was the only way you got to play concerts outside of the Soviet Union,” observed violinist Alikhanova. “Now [since the dissolution of the Soviet Union] you can go wherever you want.”

From 1991-96, the quartet was artist-in-residence at the Lamont School of Music in Denver, and in 1997, went on to teach at the University of Colorado in Denver, where they currently reside.

Each year they visit Moscow to perform and visit their families.

Alikhanova, whose biography shows she has a life outside the Quartet, spends her free time away from the Quartet and her private violin students with her dog, Tosha, and enjoys hiking and gathering mushrooms in the mountains around Denver, as does cellist Ogranovitch, who also enjoys mushroom hunting, travel and astrology.

Welcome to Topanga. We love mushrooms, mountains and astrology here, too.

Mostly, however, “We teach and we play concerts,” Alikhanova says modestly.

One can only hope our paths cross again.

The afternoon ended for us, began for those attending the second performance, with delicious hors d’oeuvres and wine.

The Da Camera Society has a full performance schedule planned for 2012. For those interested in attending or joining the Society, visit: dacamera.org.

The Da Camera Society was founded at Mount St. Mary’s College in 1973 by musicologist and professor Dr. MaryAnn Bonino to foster the return of chamber music to the salons for which it was originally intended. Extending that concept, “Chamber Music in Historic Sites” travels to a variety of unique and intimate environments to celebrate the experience of music in a social and architectural context.