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It’s hard to imagine a mandolin in the same room as a string quartet, never mind sharing the same stage and performing together. Nevertheless, that is what we happened upon Saturday night in the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall. The Dover Quaret who are the rising stars of young American string quartets, collaborated with the internationally acclaimed Israeli born mandolinist Avi Avital in a program of music from three centuries designed to provide a deep, emotional experience with mostly unfamiliar music.
The Dover Quartet burst onto the scene in 2013 when it won all of the top prizes at the Banff International String Quartet Competition. Since then it has been keeping a hair-raising schedule with over one hundred concerts a year throughout North America and Europe. Of course it didn’t begin with the competition. The quartet made up of violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee on violin, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw was founded when four undergraduates at the Curtis Institute of Music began performing as an ensemble in 2008. They have been together since that time and have no plans to slow down anytime soon. They have released their first CD and have another set to be released in 2017. Following Saturday night’s concert, the quartet and Avi Avital headed to New York for a recording session of the David Bruce work performed at the concert. According to Shaw, recording is very important to the quartet in order that they preserve their finest work for a lifetime.
Avi Avital is perhaps the foremost artist on the mandolin today. He is regularly seen in the major concert halls around the world and has had more than ninety compositions written for him. His recordings on the Deutsche Grammaphon labels have been award-winning.
Opening with Six Miniatures for String Quartet and Mandolin by Sulkahan Tsintsadze, the folk music theme of the evening began. These miniatures are not played often except by Avital in his own arrangements. They give the feeling of a Bohemian café. From rustic dance with driving rhythms to love songs with sweet melodies, the music spun a musical story of a simple life. Avital and the quartet had unbridled fun with each of these folk song arrangements and the joy spilled out to the audience.
The Dover Quartet next performed alone in String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor “From My Life” by Bedřich Smetana. This autobiographical four movement work also has folk music influences. Unlike much of his music that was nationalistic in its romanticism, this is an intensely personal string quartet. It began with the warm, yearning solo played beautifully by violist Miena Pajaro-van de Stadt reflecting Smetana’s youthful pull to the life of an artist. After a second movement of contrasting dance styles, cellist Camden Shaw had a moving solo describing Smetana’s first love. The finale was performed with the emotional passion and tragedy that was imbued in the music as a result of the composer’s loss of hearing and resulting depression.
Following intermission, Avital performed the Chaconne from Paritia in D Minor for Violin B Minor BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach. Contrasting the folk influenced work in the rest of the program, this work is perhaps the best known of all of Bach’s solo violin music. Avital’s arrangement for mandolin was as virtuosic and emotionally fulfilling as could be heard on the original violin.
The program concluded with David Bruce’s Cymbaline for string quartet and mandolin. Bruce described the work as a “comtemplation of our relationship with this fiery giver of life…” Each of the three movements representing sunrise, noon and sunset, use Celtic folk material. There were moments of intense energy in both the cross-rhythms and metric changes of midday as well as the reflective spirituality of the sunset. The final quiet moment with just the mandolin was breathtaking.
In reflecting on this concert, I must also look back to other extremely talented young performers who have been on stage recently. Bee Unger, who performed with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra on Friday, is perhaps the most promising bassoonist of her generation. Christopher Goodpasture, who performed last weekend to a jubilant audience is a pianist with the maturity and artistry to perform on any major stage of the world. Recently we have heard pianists Todd Yaniw and Sae Yoon Chon as well as violinist Katya Poplyansky in house concerts. For each of these promising artists and for many more, the road to sustainable and satisfying careers has never been more daunting. It seems that until one has won a few major international competitions, a feat that has some luck attached, it is almost impossible to get a foot in the door. One can only imagine if it were the case that only the top prize winners from our most prestigious medical schools could find full employment.
The Dover Quartet is one of those talented and lucky few to have won the big prize and seems to have a rich and full concert schedule, and deservedly so. Nevertheless, society needs more great music expressing intangible beauty in a world that seems to be increasingly troubled. There is nothing like live musical experiences to help one deeply feel the soul inspiring message that music has within it. As we discovered again on Saturday evening there is a generation of young artists ready to fill the need.
DOVER QUARTET and AVI AVITAL an unlikely combination in an emotional and passionate performance!
Dover Quartet; Photo credit:doverquartet.com
Dover Quartet and Avi Avital, Photo credit: doverquartet.com
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON February 12th 2017