Usually, I don’t struggle to find a seat at a VCU Music concert at the W.E. Singleton Center for the performing arts. This Saturday’s Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Series presentation of the Jupiter String Quartet was a different story.
The auditorium is packed with sharply dressed Richmonders sitting side by side with droves of book-bag-hauling VCU students, flipping through programs and chattering animatedly about the evening’s repertoire. The buzz is contagious. I quickly buy into the hype.
An applause of eager (if unsuspecting) anticipation greets the quartet as the lights dim and its members take their opening bow. Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel on violins, Daniel McDonough on cello, and Liz Freivogel on viola all grin knowingly at each other, as if they’re about to reveal an exciting secret. Indeed, from the moment they dive headlong into the first note of the Ludwig van Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 6 in Bb major, Op. 18 no. 6,” it tangibly takes the audience a moment or two to collectively catch its breath.
This is not music to let wash over you with closed eyes like some mood-altering narcotic. Jupiter’s music occurs as much in their dance-like physical movements—illuminating the stage with each deep-felt musical gesture and enthralling the musicians like it’s the first time they’ve heard it.
In the Beethoven number, the members volley musical statements back and forth between each other with a jaunty bob and curious eye contact, as if anticipating an answer. A characteristic carpet-pull in Beethoven’s score leaves them visibly shocked, though never wavering. McDonough in particular grinds into the booming low register of his cello, doing something eerily close to a head-bang. In the double-time finale, the quartet appears to struggle against flying from their chairs.
While the Beethoven piece is charming and jovial, Jupiter’s performance of Bela Bartok’s “String Quartet No. 4” is a pinched, twisted nerve—something barely able to keep its countenance under unyielding and steadily increasing pressure. It is made all the more unsettling for its refusal to break into uncontrolled screaming.
Virtuosic color techniques crackle, pop and fizzle like some squealing short-circuiting machine, with nuts and bolts pinging loose from steam pressure by the end of the fourth movement—a dizzying frenzy that surely could have inspired Bernard Herrmann’s score to “Psycho” some thirty years later.
There is a single reprieve in the third movement, where a solo cello sings over a harsh chorus of crickets flying over a humid blue field. The Hungarian-folksong phrasing of the cello line bends, moans and falters in a voice distinctly human; resigned to his isolation but, for this brief moment: at peace. The audience sits in stunned silence for a microsecond before delivering a rousing applause.
While the program notes are quick to point out that there are no direct quotes from “American” in Dvořák’s “Op. 96. American,” the distinct proto-Copland-American sound is impossible to den. From Jupiter’s first post-intermission strains, we hear the Czech composer construct a striking collage of American sounds and images superimposed on traditional European structure and counterpoint.
Wild applause erupts more than four bars before the driving final movement – a pounding steam engine flying through the countryside – is finished. Before the house lights reawaken, the audience has handed Jupiter a good three standing ovations.
And the praise is rightfully earned. This is a group of performers whose priority as musicians stems from not just their love of the music but, more importantly, from their endeavor to draw in their audience; to bring us to love and experience this vast range of intangible human emotion the same way they do.
The Jupiter Quartet invites us to experience their music not as passive spectators, but as active participants in our own individual musical epiphanies. I eagerly anticipate their return.
The Jupiter String Quartet has recorded twice commercially on the Marquis label: a 2009 recording of the Mendelssohn “op. 80” and Beethoven “op. 135” quartets, and a 2007 recording of Shostakovich “no. 3” and Britten “no. 2” are available for listening and checkout from VCU Libraries.