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Va.-based quartet plays part of an American work and a big Brahms one

By By David Williams
For the Gazette

The only problem Saturday in the Garth Newell Piano Quartet’s concert for the Charleston Chamber Music Society at Christ Church United Methodist was that it played just the first, fourth and final movements of Stephen Hartke’s “King of the Sun” (1988).

The ensemble -- Teresa Ling, violin; Evelyn Grau, viola; Isaac Melamed, cello, and Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano -- has been a popular ensemble with the Charleston audience. It is hard to image the local audience wouldn’t want to hear more from it.

Since the cut movements amounted to ten more minutes of music, the choice seems odd.

What was played of Hartke’s piece, which is based on a painting by Miro, sounded fine. But the piece is interconnected in so many ways that coherence was lost without the whole.

The first movement, “Personages in the night guided by the phosphorescent tracks of snails,” opened with quiet punchy fragments from the strings before the piano filled in gaps in the strings’ rhythms. The strings faded away and the piano continued chop-chop before it also settled into silence.

The fourth movement, “The flames of the sun make the desert flower hysterical,” burst out loudly with the strings playing rapidly repeated figures against fanfare-like outbursts from the piano. Pulsating melodic bits, loaded with string harmonics, were answered by flurries of repeated chords in the piano. Rumblings in the bass of the piano led to a quiet pizzicato passage for the strings before a wiry cello solo brought the movement to a close.

The finale, “Personages and birds rejoicing at the arrival of night,’ began with Lee playing pulsating hand-muted figures (dampening the strings’ ringing with the edge of the hand) in the piano. Ling and Grau launched a lyrical idea that sounded vaguely like like Copland but floating over the jaunty stride of Melamed’s pizzicato cello and Lee’s insistent muted chords.

Hartke, who has been on the faculty of the University of Southern California since 1987, has the post-Crumb generation of composers’ sensitivities to exquisite sound and coloration. His mostly tonal, rhythmically vital style is easy on the ear without sounding banal.

The players invested plenty of care in tone color and rhythm, to ravishing effect.

Brahms’ lengthy Piano Quartet in A Major (1861) was played with lyrical fervor and passionate intensity. The opening of the second movement was haunting with Melamed’s and Grau’s hushed bass line setting Lee’s sweeping arpeggios of diminished chords into motion.

The scherzo’s deft conversation, with the motifs flicking among the instruments, glittered, if darkly at times.

A robust dance-like swagger permeated the final rondo. When the mood turned calmer the players lingered affectionately over the melodies without loosing rhythmic momentum. All of it came with apt coloring, spot-on pacing and lovely tone.

The quartet brought a sense of solidity to Frank Bridge’s Phantasy in F-sharp Minor (1910). The turbulent textures and dark tone of the beginning, with piano and strings striving both together and in opposition, reasserted themselves frequently but quieter lyrical moments gradually gained the upper hand before the piece ended quietly.

A large crowd of more than 200 attended.

Local pianist Jacob Baumgarner played Rachmaninov’s stormy, briefly sunlit Étude Tableau in C Minor as a pre-concert opener.

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