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REVIEW: La Jolla Music Society kicks off in-person season with an excellent performance by the Takács Quartet

San Diego Union-Tribune

Jonathan Nussman
October 17, 2021

The La Jolla Music Society opened its 53rd season at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Friday — the first fully in-person season since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — with a chamber music concert by the acclaimed Takács Quartet.

Before the Takács Quartet took the stage, the appreciative audience was greeted by Todd Schultz, president of the La Jolla Music Society, who expressed a desire for the coming season to provide a safe space for concert-goers to return to live music. He thanked the audience for donning masks and displaying proof of vaccination at the door — precautions that ultimately made easy additions to a thrilling evening of chamber music by Franz Joseph Haydn, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Franz Schubert.

The Takács Quartet is one of the finest ensembles in the United States. Established in Budapest in 1975, the quartet now resides in Boulder, Colorado and has a long history of excellence in live performance, recording and educational outreach. On Friday the musicians played with admirable virtuosity and emotional depth. The ensemble’s characteristic musicality, and ability to play the quietest passages with breathtaking intensity, was served well by the Conrad’s exquisite acoustics.

The program opened with a commendable rendition of Haydn’s 1772 String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5. The work is a showcase for the first violinist, and Edward Dusinberre’s virtuosity was notable from the start, particularly in the adagio where his cascading melodies were elegantly executed with the lightest of touch. The final movement, an intricate fugue based on a moody, angular theme, was played with impressive clarity and energy. It allowed the rest of the ensemble — violinist Harumi Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér — ample opportunity to shine as they passed the theme from one player to the next.

Second on the program was Coleridge-Taylor’s Five Fantasiestücke for String Quartet, a work much less familiar to contemporary audiences and a welcome addition to the concert. Composed in 1895 when Coleridge-Taylor was only 20-years-old, the piece is a charming series of shorter movements, or “Fantasies,” each with its own unique character and mood.

Coleridge-Taylor’s music is lyrical and harmonically rich, and his style is rooted in 19th-century Romanticism. As the son of a white English woman and Black doctor from Sierra Leone, Coleridge-Taylor is an excellent composer of color whose work slipped into obscurity as the 20th Century progressed. The Takács Quartet’s adept interpretation of the score shone particularly in the quiet, meandering Serenade of the second movement and the fiery Dance that closes the set.

It is worth noting that by programming Coleridge-Taylor’s work alongside two Austrian masters, the Takács Quartet is challenging the biases inherent in the traditional classical canon by amplifying voices of composers from underrepresented communities. It was a perfect compliment to the more familiar works on the concert, and the kind of inclusive programming that we should expect.

After intermission came Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, D.810, and it was the strongest performance of the evening. This moving, often volatile work bears the nickname “Death and the Maiden,” a title it borrows from a song written by Schubert several years prior. Schubert repurposed motivic and harmonic material from his song in the quartet’s sublime second movement, and listeners have often drawn parallels between the quartet and the original song’s description of death as a soothing embrace.

Composed in 1824 when Schubert was suffering from a prolonged terminal illness, the work might suggest a composer grappling with his own impending mortality. In listening, however, it is the composer’s constant inventiveness and emotional vitality that cuts through the fleeting moments of despair, and we are left with the impression of a young man fighting to establish his own musical legacy within the confines of his remaining time.

From the opening bars, the performers displayed a mastery of the work’s many technical challenges, and a deep connection to its emotional content. Their performance of the second movement, in which Schubert takes a somber and haunting theme through a series of radical transformations, was the highlight of the evening.

In brief remarks given after intermission, violinist Dusinberre pointed out that listeners who hear only the specter of death in Schubert’s quartet are missing the work’s insistent celebration of life — a spirit that he described as a “protest against mortality.” He went on to say that Schubert’s music “brings us here together to play, to listen, and to illuminate both beginnings and endings.”

As it turned out, the performance made a memorable ending to a fine concert, as well as a worthy beginning to what is sure to be an excellent season for the La Jolla Music Society.