Avalon String Quartet
Blaise Magnière and Marie Wang, violin
Anthony Devroye, viola
Cheng Hou-Lee, cello
December 16, 2020
Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts
David Schwan, host
Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 (38′)
I. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
II. Allegro molto vivace
III. Allegro moderato (recitative)
IV. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile
VI. Adagio quasi un poco andante
Described by the Chicago Tribune as “an ensemble that invites you — ears, mind, and spirit — into its music,” the Avalon String Quartet has established itself as one of the country’s leading chamber music ensembles.
The Avalon has performed in major venues including Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, the 92nd St Y, Merkin Hall, and Bargemusic in New York; the Library of Congress and National Gallery of Art in Washington DC; Wigmore Hall in London; and Herculessaal in Munich. Other performances include appearances at the Bath International Music Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, Caramoor, La Jolla Chamber Music Society, NPR’s St. Paul Sunday, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Dame Myra Hess Concerts, Los Angeles Music Guild, and the Ravinia Festival. The quartet performs an annual concert series in historic Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it has presented the complete quartet cycles of Beethoven, Bartok, and Brahms in recent seasons.
The Avalon is quartet-in-residence at the Northern Illinois University School of Music, a position formerly held by the Vermeer Quartet. Additional teaching activities have included the Icicle Creek Chamber Music Institute, Interlochen Advanced Quartet Program, Madeline Island Music Camp, and the Britten-Pears School in England, as well as masterclasses at universities and conservatories throughout the United States. Additionally, they have given numerous performances and presentations to young audiences in under-resourced schools and communities.
In 2015, the quartet released “Illuminations”, its first recording for Cedille Records. It was met with praise from NY Times, WQXR radio and Chicago Tribune. This recording follows a critically acclaimed CD of contemporary American works on the Albany label in 2010. The Avalon String Quartet’s debut CD, Dawn to Dusk, featuring quartets by Ravel and Janacek, was honored with the 2002 Chamber Music America/WQXR Record Award for best chamber music recording.
The quartet’s live performances and conversations are frequently featured on Chicago fine arts radio station WFMT. They have also been heard on New York’s WQXR and WNYC, National Public Radio’s Performance Today, Canada’s CBC, Australia’s ABC, the ARD of Germany, and France Musique.
The Avalon captured the top prize at the ARD Competition in Munich (2000) and First Prize at the Concert Artists Guild Competition in New York City (1999). In its early years, the ensemble trained intensively with the Juilliard Quartet at The Juilliard School, the Emerson Quartet at the Hartt School of Music, and the Vermeer Quartet at Northern Illinois University.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 (1825-26)
Beethoven wrote Op. 131 without a commission, apparently working out of personal desire. He did not live to see either performance or publication of this quartet—which he considered his best—but on his own deathbed Franz Schubert arranged for a private hearing in November 1828. At first glance, the work seems randomly organized, but deep thematic and tonal interconnections weld the diverse parts into a seamless whole. Its seven movements, played without pause, break down into subdivisions in which some movements serve to introduce others. The tonal plan includes almost all the keys closely related to the tonic C-Sharp Minor. The semitonal motions that open the quartet generate the themes of subsequent movements, especially the finale. The quartet covers a full spectrum of moods from beginning to end.
Beethoven opens Op. 131 with a somber and highly expressive fugue, which Richard Wagner described as “the saddest thing ever said in notes.” The semitonal gestures (B#-C#, A-G#) are followed by a figure turning around G#. The fugue plays with both these modules, often separately. It migrates to remote tonal areas that anticipate the keys of future movements. After an intense climax, the energy dissipates into a bleak octave leap on C#. Beethoven ingeniously shifts into the next movement by repeating the octave a half-step higher on D, the Neapolitan key. He transforms the semitones of the fugue into a perky dance-like theme that features a slight retard at the end. The form is that of a sonata without a development.
The third movement—a short 11-measure instrumental recitative—sets up the centerpiece of the quartet, a set of six variations on a lyrical aria-like melody in A Major (Beethoven called it “a sweet song of rest”). The theme makes subtle use of the semitones from the fugue. The first variation sets the theme against countermelodies, and the second turns it into a rustic dance. The theme becomes progressively hidden in the next variations: the third and fourth thicken the texture, while the fifth reduces the melody to its basic harmonic structure. The theme returns as a gentle hymn in the sixth variation; Beethoven disrupts it with an energetic and humorous gesture in the cello. The coda travels into distant tonal regions but ends serenely.
The disruptive cello gesture returns to launch one of Beethoven’s funniest and most hectic scherzos. A goofy-sounding theme, witty rests, and odd stops and starts distinguish this E-Major romp; in the second half of the scherzo, the players appear to lose their place and scramble to recover. The trio maintains the manic spirit.
With a jolt we turn a lament in G-Sharp Minor that sets up the seventh and final movement—a dramatic sonata movement in Beethoven’s most aggressive manner. The emotions held in check to this point burst forth. Starting with the fugal semitones, the primary theme becomes a sinister march. The secondary theme moves in broader rhythms, as if the piece has slowed down. The development concentrates on the primary theme. Tensions build in the developmental coda; at the end, things seem to wind down in exhaustion, but a final burst of energy leads to powerful C-Sharp Major chords that close this quartet’s remarkable journey.
—Brian Hart, Professor of Music History, Northern Illinois University
Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts is taking the next 2 weeks off for the holidays!
In the meantime you can join us for Do-It-Yourself-Messiah Virtual, on Demand
Sunday December 20, 2:00pm through
January 3, 2021