Ensembles like the Knoxville Symphony's Principal String Quartet, that owe their existence to being part of a larger group, naturally start off with a sizable disadvantage. Unlike dedicated ensembles that are standalone business entities--like the Emerson Quartet and the recently heard Formosa Quartet--the KSO's quartet membership stems from their respective positions in the orchestra's string section, are subject to orchestra turnover, and have a variety of music responsibilities outside of the quartet. Thankfully, a modicum of stability has settled over the orchestra and the Principal Quartet finds itself in a very accomplished state in its second season with the same members--Gordon Tsai and Edward Pulgar, violins; Kathryn Gawne, viola; and Andy Bryenton, cello.
Sunday's wonderful performance by the Principal Quartet was evidence that the quartet's members have grown comfortable with one another and that performance energy is now one of group's most usable assets--something that hasn't always been the case. The concert led up to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, op. 95, a work that needed every bit of that energy, foot tapping and all.
Musicologist Joseph Kerman, author of The Beethoven Quartets, remarks about the relatively short work: "...Everything unessential falls victim, leaving a residue of extreme concentration, in dangerously high tension. But strength, not strain, is the commanding impression." This directness was certainly a watchword of this performance, one in which every phrase seemed important, if not essential, and carefully crafted. The quartet handled the changing moods intelligently and managed to convey the composer's forceful and anguished frustration, which was said to be a product of the growing realization of his deafness.
The Debussy Quartet in G minor, which came earlier in the program, always takes one a bit by surprise by its sense of recent modernity that is absent from the composer's orchestral works. Balancing Debussy's contrast of impressionistic harmonies, rhythmic playfulness, decisiveness, and lyricism is no mean feat, but one the quartet did magnificently. I would have loved to hear a bit more of Debussy's distinctive tonal variety luxuriate in the acoustics of the Bijou, though.
Filling out the concert were two works of decidedly different origins: Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D Major and Lucas Richman's Movements for String Quartet. The Borodin's simplicity, easy melodic flow, and warmth were marvelously captured by the ensemble. Movements for String Quartet came from two moments in the Richman teenage years and were quite remarkable in their maturity, not to mention Richman's talent for emotionally driven musical description.