Danish String Quartet wows crowd at Four Arts
Sarah Hutchings, Palm Beach Daily News, April 21, 2022
The Society of the Four Arts hosted the charming Danish String Quartet on a windy Wednesday evening in the Walter S. Gubelmann Auditorium.
This unassuming group has performed together since they were friends at school. The group began with three Danes, violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard. Later in 2008, they added Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, whom they described as someone that “…looked like a character from ‘Game of Thrones.’” They like their beards and poking fun at each other. They also want us to understand their raison d’être: to have fun and share their endearing camaraderie with audiences.
The Danish String Quartet offered unique programming choices, beginning with Benjamin Britten’s “Three Divertimenti for String Quartet.” Written in 1936, this deconstructed set of courtly dances includes a March, Waltz, and Burlesque as movements. The divertimenti are not meant to be taken too seriously and are offered as light entertainment, justly keeping with the ensemble’s ethos.
However, the music provided intellectual stimulation as the audience experienced the familiar dance meters through Britten’s compositional lens. Like Joseph Haydn, Britten’s music contains many humorous moments as he easily embeds musical “jokes” into his works.
Each piece in the Britten set was a wonder of bowing precision and control that required difficult stops and chops of the bow. The players knew how to ring their instruments in the hall on releases to add extra effect. The final movement, the Burlesque, was technically perfect and equitably balanced in the instruments. The audience particularly liked the pizzicato passages, responding with enthusiastic applause.
In an unusual programming choice, the quartet combined dances from works by contemporary American composer John Adams, the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier and the Romantic Russian pianist and composer Felix Blumenfeld into a piece called “An Alleged Suite.”
The effect was almost like a dance and variation, beginning with the regal Charpentier “Prelude” and injected with movements from Adams’ “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.” The musicians seem to crave technical complexity; indeed, they excel at it. But confronted with the Charpentier, the French Baroque idiom seemed a shock to their program while again asking us to have fun and not take this too seriously. Only when they passionately played through the musical sequences did the power of the combined suite become clear.
The quartet returned to the stage after intermission to perform a cornerstone of string quartet literature, Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet (String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810). Each movement was performed with fire and technical agility, with an astounding clarity of balance in the ensemble.
The best responses of the evening came from a group of string students in attendance who were “wowed” by the ensemble’s presentation and inspired to go home and practice more on their instruments. For many, it was their first exposure to curated John Adams and the Britten “Divertimenti.” In the end, this may be The Society of the Four Arts’ greatest triumph: inspiring the next generation.
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