Winning performances of works by Amy Beach and Dvořák pleased audience at La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest on Wednesday
What does a string quartet do when one of its members is too sick to play?
If they’re lucky enough to be at a music festival, they can ask someone else there to substitute.
That’s just what happened on Wednesday’s SummerFest concert. The Takács Quartet has been together for 48 years, but the only original member still in the ensemble them is cellist András Fejér — who became ill.
Cellist and composer Paul Wiancko was scheduled to appear on Wednesday’s program to perform his “American Haiku” with Takács violist Richard O’Neill. Could Wiancko take over for Fejér?
He could and he did, with superb results. It certainly helped that Wiancko used to play with the Harlem Quartet, and is the new cellist for the Kronos Quartet.
It did change the Takács’ sound, though. Wiancko is 28 years younger than Fejér; he plays with less vibrato, as do most younger string quartets these days (although Kronos pioneered that sound, and they’re actually older than the Takács).
This was most noticeable in Dvořák’s String Quartet in F Major, Opus 96, the “American.” The slow second movement ends with a long cello melody that starts on a high A and drops down 2-1/2 octaves to close on the instrument’s lowest D.
Wiancko played this — perfectly in tune, I should emphasize — with no or minimal vibrato. It was a striking contrast to the first appearance of this melody at the beginning of the movement, given the tight, throbbing vibrato of first violinist Edward Dusinberre, who has been with the ensemble since 1993.
If you listen to the 1989 Takács recording of this same work, you’ll hear Fejér imbue that closing cello melody with more vibrato.
Overall, the Takács’ performance was gutsy in the first movement, playful in the third, lively in the last. Hearing it in the warm glow of Baker-Baum Concert Hall’s acoustics was a treat.
The concert opened with a recent Takács specialty, Amy Beach’s 1907 Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Opus 67. Their 2020 disc with Garrick Ohlsson is the go-to recording of this neglected work. The Takács and pianist Inon Barnatan made a compelling case for more frequent performances.
Ohlsson’s reading may be more muscular, but Barnatan has a creamy cantabile tone. In softer passages, one does not even hear an attack, merely notes miraculously sounding somehow. The end of the second movement closes with a super-soft arpeggio that sits on a suspension. Barnatan let the dissonance fade into practically nothing before faintly sounding the resolution, a magical effect.
The keyboard part reflects Beach’s virtuosic technique; Barnatan handled her pianistic fireworks well.
Beach was a self-taught composer. That probably explains the Quintet’s harmonies, which owe more to Liszt or Wagner than Brahms, the usual model for other late 19th-century Boston composers. It was the first time I ever heard this impressive work live, an experience I imagine I shared with much of the audience. The musicians were warmly applauded.
In between was Wiancko’s “American Haiku,” played by Wiancko and O’Neill. In three brief movements, Wiancko exploited exuberant bowings, double-stops, and genial harmonies that owed much to bluegrass, folk music, and jazz. This early work had a digressive form, perhaps reflecting juxtaposed images in haiku. “American Haiku’s” brevity and enthusiasm, and the spunky performance by Wiancko and O’Neill, compensated for its overall lack of cohesion.
More recent works such as 2021’s Kronos Quartet commission, “Only Ever Us,”show Wiancko’s improved handling of form. His 2016 piece, “Closed Universe” for the unusual combination of piano quartet with solo cello doubling on glockenspiel, will be heard at Wiancko’s “Promises, Promises” concert at 3 p.m. Sunday.
Hertzog is a freelance writer.