Review: Stormy-night selections get stellar treatment

Our hunch is that Classic Chamber Concerts artistic director William Noll and the Jasper String Quartet sat down one dark and stormy night with a bottle of rum — and presumably a raven in the room — to forge Monday's program.

The result:

A quartet from a composer who had lost his hearing and was on the way toward his eventual death in an insane asylum.

A primal odyssey up Mount Everest, without the guarantee of safe descent.

The last quartet of a man who had just lost his kindred spirit, his sister, and who would die himself in two months.

This isn't to say that the concert Tuesday at the Sugden Community Theatre wasn't a sublime evening. The Jasper String Quartet, the favored in-residence chamber artists of this series, guarantees great music no matter what it plays.

Nor is it to say these pieces are without moments of joy, even glee. The second segment of the Bedrich Smetana work is a romp, a polka that dares you to keep your feet on the floor. Smetana's work takes the listener through his life, and it obviously had moments of joy and passion that are incorporated into its four movements. There is great deal of dynamic emotion in this, and the quartet has homed in on the precise moments to lower their instruments to a whisper or raise the sound to the rafters.

The poignant third movement doesn't need historical deconstruction for the listener to appreciate the gentle approach the Jaspers bring to it. But it plumbs different depths if you know the composer's life story — three of his four daughters died while they were children as did his first wife, of tuberculosis. Smetana's own losing battle with a crippling tinnitus shows up in the final movement as a searing single note.

The opening movement, with its shimmering accompaniment, allowed violist Sam Quintal to star in an immediate solo, strong and rich without upstaging the emotion to come.

Perhaps Smetana in his progressing deafness would have had fewer problems than most listeners seemed to with "Reach," the second work. Written less than two years ago, Nicholas Omiccioli dedicated this bleak, coldly textured work to the climbers of Mount Everest. The world's highest mountain is a fatal attraction; more than 200 people have died trying to scale it in the last 90 years.

Omiccioli's brittle work reflects that, with screaming slides and manipulated extended notes that force the string players to create new sound character as well as tone. Whether it's a likable piece or not, it's a fascinating study of the instruments' abilities. As one music lover suggested, you can sense the lack of oxygen.

Unfortunately, it doesn't — at least to this listener's ears — embrace the thrill of seeing Everest's pristine peak or the world spread out below you.

If the Jasper String Quartet can master this one, the ensemble is certainly ready for its upcoming Carnegie Hall debut April 12, with works by Beethoven and Aaron Jay Kernis. The performance Monday said it: They're ready.

It's Carnegie's loss that the audience there won't hear the quartet's performance of Mendelssohn's String Quartet in F minor, Opus 80. This quartet shows the composer at his deepest, with Brahmsian thunderclouds of passion that melt into passing gentle themes.

The Jasper String Quartet played as though it had been written for them, with relish and an obvious love for this work. J Freivogel injects a soaring finale solo and the entire group pass thrill trills and motifs facilely among themselves. Cellist Rachel Henderson-Freivogel and violinist Sae Chonabayashi put a triple mock ending through perfect, slightly stretched pauses among each instrument.

It was a 20-minute testament to the thrill of live music: No recording will ever be as good as this was.

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