Saturday, January 21, 2023

String Quartets from Three Centuries at Mason House

The Zelter String Quartet, l-r: Gallia Kastner, Kyle Gilner, Carson Rick, Allan Hon.


Zelter String Quartet Plays Haydn, Puccini, Mason and Montgomery at Mason House

It was a dark and stormy night… on the quiet street outside Mason House, the homey West LA venue for chamber music. But inside, Mason Concerts was kicking off its 2023 series with a compelling program. On its second visit, the Zelter String Quartet featured works by Haydn, Puccini (yes, that Puccini) and two living composers, Jessie Montgomery and Todd Mason, Mason Concerts’ impresario.

Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano.
Perhaps because of the wild, atmospheric river-fueled weather, the evening had an even more intimate feeling than usual. Dr. Kristi Brown-Montasano’s enriching presentations on Haydn and Puccini, and how the evening’s selections fitted into their oeuvres, evolved into conversations with Mason and eventually the musicians, who were asked to play brief passages to illuminate particular elements of each piece.

Having attended classical concerts most of my life, during which interactions with the audience (beyond admonitions to be silent) were rare, I am pleased when musicians and professional educators like Dr. Brown-Montasano are included to help audiences understand and interpret what they are about to hear. In other genres it isn’t unusual for musicians to introduce their music with “This song is about...,” but often, classical music audiences only know the composer’s name and titles that only a file clerk could love, such as Haydn’s String Quartet No. 66 in G major, Op. 77 No. 1, Hob. III:81, which was the first piece performed.

Joseph Haydn in 1791, eight years before the
composition of his String Quartet No. 66.
Dr. Brown-Montasano helped the audience understand where this quartet from 1799 fitted into Haydn’s long career, including poignant details about his faltering health and some conjecture about his priorities as he saw the end of his career approaching. She also illuminated the brief Puccini piece, Crisantemi (1890), by sharing a recorded excerpt from the opera Manon Lescaut, written around the same time, comparing the music from a tragic moment therein with an identical theme Puccini embedded in the quartet.

What she brought to the second half of the show—with the help of Mason and the cheerfully cooperative quartet members—gave the 21st century works personal relevance, focusing both on the composers’ intentions in creating their music, and on details of each composition that gave listeners something to listen for—a “hook” in the jargon of pop music. Violinist Gallia Kastner and Dr. Brown-Montasano had a moving exchange on how Kastner brought Montgomery’s Strum to her attention years ago, and Mason and the quartet talked about different bowing techniques and plucking to produce distinct moods and feelings from stringed instruments, and their prominent use in both pieces.

Giacomo Puccini, c. 1890.
Thus prepared, the audience sat back and was enthralled by the Zelter's beautiful, versatile and soulful playing. These musicians—Kastner, violinist Kyle Gilner, violist Carson Rick and cellist Allan Hon—play like they share a psychic connection: performers who listen with intention. The Haydn had energy, drive and exquisite attention to detail, while the Puccini displayed the quartet's lyrical side with the sweetness and emotion of their playing—most strikingly in unison passages but octaves apart—to electrifying effect.

Todd Mason’s String Quartet No. 1 (2018, rev. 2022) is a major work, building on the tradition of two of his compositional inspirations, Beethoven and Bartók. The first movement played like a tone poem about order and meaning emerging from chaos—like dreams at the moment of birth. At its outset, the second movement was active, curious, questioning, with constantly evolving and shifting tempi, until it metamorphosed into something more grave and serious, slowing to a crawl as if the narrator was stunned by something. But the tempo abruptly picked up again at the end with a sense of purpose, fighting through a storm.

The third movement returned to the pace and solemnity of the previous movement’s awestruck passage, and at times felt like a dialogue, with voices intertwining as in a romance, suggesting the diversion was for the sake of love. At its outset the movement had a feeling of emotional immediacy, raw, fragile, and expressed in a kind of private language, but then there was a barely perceptible transition from naked emotion into memory of tender emotions recalled. The intimacy of that third movement was overpowering. 

But the reverie was broken when the fourth movement began, as if the musicians were being roughly awakened to an urgent call: time is rushing by and one must hurry to catch up. As this final movement approached its conclusion, the dreamy themes from the first movement were reintroduced, before the piece resolved in what sounded like a series of hard-won, almost breathless affirmations. As with the Puccini, the Zelter Quartet was given opportunities in Mason’s fourth movement to seize our attention, again and again, with evocative unison passages, played in a singing tone to ecstatic effect.

Jessie Montgomery.
The Zelters' quartet arrangement of Jessie Montgomery’s orchestral Strum (2006, rev. 2012)—the final listed work—was a tonal contrast to all that had come before. As the title hints, this piece employs the players’ ability to beat out rhythms, their instruments at times sounding almost like banjos, mandolins, guitars, or drums. For most of this piece, strumming, pizzicato, and bow work kept a dance beat going, giving way to contrasting legato passages. Strum was simultaneously fast and slow—a series of jigs accompanying lyric arias, leading to a furious finish—and easy to love.

That was a thrilling enough conclusion to the program, but the Zelter Quartet had an encore ready for the happy audience, an arrangement of a Danish folk song, Æ Rømesor, arranged by the Danish String Quartet. It had a childlike quality: a refreshingly uncomplicated dessert after a full, rich course of meaningful music sensitively played.

A break in the rain coincided with the end of the concert, so most of the audience took advantage of it. But those who stayed were buzzing, quaffing Ethel Phipps’ hearty beef barley soup, worshipping the quartet members like Beyoncé, and commenting how remarkable it was that Zelter could maintain such a consistently matched voice. A memorable night at Mason House, and there is so much more to come in the 2023 season.

The Zelter Quartet with Todd Mason.

Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, January 14, 2023. 
Images: The concert: Todd Mason; Haydn, Puccini: Wikimedia Commons; Dr. Brown-Montesano: website; Jessie Montgomery: Jiyang Chen Photography, artist website.

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