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6th Annual Surf and Sounds Chamber Music Series

A Challenging and Memorable Musical Experience

Kipp Tabb

As the 6th Annual Bryan Cultural Series Surf and Sounds Chamber Music Series took the stage this past week, the thought that comes to mind is that if this is the new normal it’s not completely bad. 

Not as good as a live performance, but given the quality of the feed coming from the Dare County Arts Council, it was about as good as it gets in a COVID world.

The best recording quality means nothing if the performance is lacking, though, and there was nothing lacking in the performance the Surf and Sounds quartet brought to life. Appearing on Tuesday and Friday evening, Liz Vonderheide and Abigel Kralik on violin, violist Luke Fleming, and Musical Director Jake Fowler on cello created virtuoso experiences.

A quick note about Abigel Kralik. Filling in for Katie Hyun, who usually makes the trip but couldn’t this year, Kralik, a graduate student at Juilliard, was flawless in her performances.

Because this is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, there has been an emphasis on his works. Both evenings  featured his chamber music.

Tuesday evening began with Beethoven Trio Op. 9 no. 3 in C minor with Liz Vonderheide on violin. Written at the end of what is considered Beethoven’s early period, it creates a fascinating musical journey.  

The first movement, Allegro con spirito, begins with a beautiful and evocative melody. What stands out is how full and rich the sound is, even though it is a trio. 

Dancing over a chordal base that creates the expressive feel of the movement, Vonderheide’s violin seems to soar, each note distinctive, precise. Then Fleming on viola seems to chase the melody, followed by the three instruments playing what almost seems to be individual melodies, yet each blending perfectly. 

There is a beautiful passage featuring Fleming on viola with the violin seeming to play around the melody. Then the movement ends on a full-throated final chord.

The beautiful melodic theme of the first movement is picked up again in the second movement, although now the meter is slower, and it doesn’t have the intense back and forth of the first movement.

Leading perfectly to the the third movement, Scherzo. Allegro molto e vivace. This is a challenging and marvelous journey into the genius of Beethoven. The theme goes back and forth between C minor and C major, creating a feeling of tension, that then resolves beautifully on a final unified note.

The Finale, Presto, fast brilliant with all of the themes coming together again. Vonderheide’s violin seems to dance above everything, but her melody is answered every time by cello and viola. The music is alternately gay then powerful and ominous. Perhaps resolving the composition, this movement has the most recognizable melody.

Written a few years after his Trio in C Minor, Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18 no. 4 in C minor has many of the same elements, but it is a more intricate and subtle composition.

From the outset this is a compelling piece of music. the violins grab the listener’s attention immediately with a quick but tuneful introduction. The theme continues but the complexity builds with violins trading melodies, the viola playing beneath them. In one of the most beautiful passages from the composition, cellist Jake Fowler takes the melody for just a brief moment, but it’s exquisite.

Beethoven did some things with music that were considered fairly radical for his time. Typically the composers of his day when they composed a string quartet would have at least one passage that was slower—perhaps to give listeners a chance to catch their breath. In this piece, things don’t slow down very much.

The Second movement, Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto, is as close as the piece gets to slow, but it moves along quite well. Musically the rhythms are more straightforward and there is very little atonality in it, making the movement a more restful piece of the overall composition. 

A minuet would at times be included in a string composition during Beethoven’s time and his third movement, Menuetto: Allegro and Trio, is a minuet of sorts, but anyone attempting to dance to it would be exhausted by the end of it. The pace is fast, there is some wonderful interplay between violins creating an almost playful feel.

The piece ends with a blistering Allegro Prestissimo that highlights something that is not often noticed or discussed—the different characteristics of the instruments themselves.

In this movement, featuring considerable interplay between the violins, it becomes apparent that the violin Kralik plays has a brilliant, intense sound. Vonderheide’s violin produces a very full, rich sound. Having those different qualities as part of the experience, brings an added level of enjoyment to the evening.

One of the hallmarks of the Surf and Sound Series has been Fowler’s musical selections that take listeners on journey though time, highlighting how music evolves and changes. This year’s performances continued that tradition.

Tuesday evening featured Dvorak’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 written in 1893 when he was in the United States. The quartet, which he did not name, is often referred to as American Quartet or Suite. 

The music is a soaring wonderful tribute to his time in the United States. As important as the composition is, though, was Dvorak’s view that American music was an important part of world culture.

The piece begins with a wonderfully lyrical melody that seems to suggest flowing streams and open fields. Although there is the constant interplay among the instruments, it holds the melody throughout the movement.

His second movement, Lento, is often most closely associated with the music Dvorak experienced during his time in New York and the country. For the first time he encountered African-American spirituals and he found them powerful and moving.

The movement very much suggests a spiritual. Exquisitely melodic, it is a more straightforward arrangement than is usually associated with classical music. Yet there are some fascinating elements to it. For much of the movement Fowler plays his cello pizzicato as a counterpoint to the melody. The pizzicato theme is traded off to the violins as the movement ends and the melody is taken on by the viola and cello.

Throughout the composition there are suggestions of his time in America. In the third movement, the trilling of the violin over the melody lines seems to suggest a bird, supposedly a scarlet tanager.

Everything comes together in the final movement, with an energy and tempo that seems to suggest the vitality and potential of what he witnessed during his time in America.

Also written in 1893 Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, op. 10, has some characteristics similar to Dvorak’s work, but it could not be more different. The one element they do share, however, is during the late 19th century there was a conscious use of folk music themes in composition. Although not always immediately apparent, it was a way to break from the masters of the past.

This piece has a much more modern feel to it. There is atonality in it. Although violins often take on the melodic lines, the themes are often brought into focus by the cello and viola.

The second movement especially is fascinating in how it is constructed. Whole passages are played pizzicato. The passage seems to end on an unfinished note, softly plucked.

That soft, anticipatory note perfectly introduces the third movement with its beautifully crafted violin melody to begin the journey into the music. The viola picks up the melody, taking on a folk-song like quality. Slow and melodic, the theme flows back and forth between violin and viola. Building in intensity as the cello enters the mix.

The fourth movement resolves everything, beginning with a slow and perfectly played solo from Fowler on cello. The cello figures very prominently in this movement as the music seems to argue with itself, undecided if it is furious or melodic. 

The result is a wonderfully challenging and memorable musical experience—the perfect way to bring the week’s performances to a close.

One of the most heartfelt moments of the two evenings of music was Fowler taking a moment on Tuesday evening to thank the Bryan Culture Series for the opportunity to perform, something he pointed out neither he nor the other members of the quartet had been able to do for some time. 

Next up for the Bryan Cultural Series, a virtual evening with Joy Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States on September 10.

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