Wednesday, February 21, 2024

USC Prizewinning String Quartet Debut at Second Sunday

The Marzipan Quartet: l-r Veronika Manchur, Agatha Blevin, Gloria Choi, Joseph Kim.


Marzipan Quartet, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Classical Crossroads Inc. rewards chamber music aficianados here in the South Bay not only with many programs by well-known locally-based performers and distinguished guests from Europe and elsewhere, but also from new young artists of exceptional merit. The latest of these to be debuted in the “Second Sundays at Two” series (actually in this instance the third Sunday in February, for scheduling reasons) were four members of USC Thornton School of Music’s graduate program, and collectively the winner of USC’s 2023 Ofiesh Quartet Competition.

The Marzipan Quartet (Veronika Manchur and Agatha Blevin, violins; Gloria Choi, viola; Joseph Kim, cello) presented two string quartets, written not quite a century apart, from Joseph Haydn and Antonín Dvořák—masters of the medium in the autumn of their respective composing careers but still at the height of their powers. First up was Haydn’s String Quartet No. 62 in C Major (Kaiserquartett), Op. 76 No. 3, Hob. III:77, written like its five companion works of that opus in 1796-97, when Haydn was around 65.

From its outset, the Marzipans’ account of the Allegro first movement (with exposition repeat observed) was sprightly, rhythmically crisp, and responsive to Haydn’s rapid shifts in dynamic and texture, with Ms. Choi and Mr. Kim seeming to particularly relish the drone effect in the bass with which Haydn varies and enriches the recapitulation.

Joseph Haydn.
In the Poco adagio slow movement, the initial statement of the “Emperor” theme—derived from Haydn’s anthem for Emperor Francis II that later became the German national anthem—was as serene and prayerful as its marking and piano dynamic implied, while in the succeeding four variations each player in turn seized the various expressive opportunities that Haydn’s careful allotting of prominence supplies.

The Menuetto, distinctly robust in the hands of the Marzipan Quartet, was effectively contrasted with the withdrawn and thoughtful Trio, and followed by a finale as vigorous as its Presto marking required. Throughout the performance the players’ attention to each other—as close as many a far more seasoned ensemble—paid dividends in elucidating Haydn’s inexhaustible textural variety and contrapuntal inventiveness.

It was a happy coincidence to be able to hear live, just one day after a fine performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor at Long Beach Symphony (reviewed here), another of his “American” works, the String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, B.179. Dvořák was Director of the National Conservatory in New York City from 1892 to 1895, and he wrote this quartet over just 16 days during his 1893 summer vacation at a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa.

In a letter he averred “… I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did.” Whether or not this “American” Quartet has specific influences or actual quotations from native American or African-American music has been argued inconclusively, but about its immediacy and memorability there is no doubt, and the Marzipan Quartet did it proud.

Dvořák in New York in 1893.
Ms. Manchur and Ms. Blevin gave the first movement’s tremolando opening just the right blend of slight hesitancy and hushed anticipation, out of which strode the mezzoforte main theme, at once forthright and measured in pace, on Ms. Choi’s viola. Another plus point was the inclusion of the oft-omitted exposition repeat—who would not want a second chance to hear such delectable music?

For all the “American” Quartet’s pervasive melodic appeal, it rarely proceeds as a simplistic “tune + accompaniment.” In this outwardly “straightforward” work Dvořák’s four-part writing is as inventive and resourceful as ever, and the Marzipans’ attentiveness revealed as many inner textural delights as it did surface beauties.

In all of chamber music literature, is there a single movement more devastatingly single-minded in its emotional directness than this quartet’s miraculous Lento? I can’t think of one, and in their performance the Marzipan Quartet faultlessly traced its seamless melodic arc, the standout amongst standouts perhaps being the cello’s restatement of the main theme, with Mr. Kim’s instrument soaring like a bird in flight through its highest register.

For all its Molto vivace marking, the scherzo is somewhat subdued in effect, its trio section—unmarked as such—being a minor-key variant of the main scherzo motif. However, there is nothing equivocal about the Finale, pervaded by an infectious ostinato staccato rhythm sometimes thought to reflect Dvořák’s well-attested love of trains. Certainly, this movement had plenty of locomotive energy in the Marzipans’ hands, though not neglecting the reflective contrast of its brief Meno mosso intercalations.

All in all, this was a most impressive debut by four splendid musicians, but you don't have to take my word for it. If you click here, you can enjoy Classical Crossroads' recording of the recital's livestreamed transmission. Let's hope the Marzipan Quartet make many more local appearances.


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, February 18, 2024, 2.00 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Dvořák:

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