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The Parker String Quartet, ​Photo courtesy of Toronto Summer Music

Even at the lowest points of mankind’s history, there have been great stories of musicians not only surviving but raising the spirits of those around them, whether in the concentration camps of Eastern Europe during World War II or in the modern era of big-name entertainers flying into dangerous war zones to entertain the troops. Last night in Walter Hall, the audience was still fresh in the grip of emotion from yet another horrid and senseless tragedy, once again in France. A crazed truck driver had killed 84 and injured 200 more in a senseless attack on innocent citizens celebrating Bastille Day. In his opening remarks, Artistic Director Douglas McNabney noted the challenge in attempting to reconcile the joyful celebration of the previous evening’s opening of the Toronto Summer Music Festival with the tragedy playing out at the same time in Nice. Once again, great music demonstrated that the best in the human spirit can lift us out of the devastations of terror and war. As in the stories of concentration camps, it was the performance of an extraordinary string quartet last night that enabled the audience to do just that. 

The Parker String Quartet is composed of violinists Daniel Chong and Ying Xue, violist Jessica Bodner, and cellist Kee-Hyun Kim. With its virtuosity and lyrical beauty, the Grammy Award-winning ensemble currently centred in Boston MA, elevated the audience from the day’s horrors to a place that only great art can.

The occasion was the second concert of London Calling: Music in Great Britain, the theme of the 2016 Toronto Summer Music Festival. The program entitled Musical Union of 1865, took the audience back to a point in time in Victorian England when John Ella, an aristocrat who had originally been meant for a career in law, dedicated his life to music. In his early life Ella had been an orchestral violinist in London’s theatres, but soon turned his attention to being an impresario by holding a series of chamber concerts featuring some of Europe’s finest musicians performing the great music of Europe. Thus Ella’s Musical Union of 1865 came into being.

The opening chord and subsequent hymn-like Adagio introduction of Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op. 71, No. 2 lifted us from our preoccupation into a world of divine beauty. The subsequent Allegro of the first movement with its playful imitations, joyful rhythms and almost child-like melodies carried us away. In the Adagio (cantabile), the work’s second movement, the quartet was at its best. The blending of each instrument allowed the soaring melodic line ring through the underlying harmonic structure. The Menuetto: Allegretto and Finale:Allegretto brought back the joyful spirit of surprise and humour.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 2 in G major Op. 18 No.2 complimented the first work on the program continuing in a graceful ‘Haydn-like’ style. One of Beethoven’s earliest quartets, the work follows in the footsteps of Haydn, but is still distinctively Beethoven, adding an Allegro Vivace to the middle of the slow second movement. Again, it was especially in the tonal beauty and lyricism of the second movement in which the Parker Quartet elevated the audience through the wonders of the music.

The Haydn and Beethoven quartets together comprised the prologue to the main event which was the symphonic String Quartet No. No. 15 in G major, D.887 by Schubert. The Parker Quartet successfully elicited all the drama and pathos that are so much a part of this work. The harsh dotted rhythms, disquieting tremolos and subsequent triplet figures contrast with the lyrical melodies. Each member of the quartet had moments when their artistry shone through with expressive tone and/or dramatic virtuosity to deliver a soul-wrenching performance of this masterpiece in the literature. It was easy to forget the context within which this quartet was performed, whether it be the events of our present day world or those of the London of 1865. The music overtook the moment and created its own context in a very personal way that only great music performed exquisitely can do.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival continues with daily performances through to August 21st. The theme London Calling: Music in Great Britain continues this week with Haydn Dialogues, St James Hall Popular Concerts, a solo recital by pianist Jeremy Denk, and Britten’s opera Rape of Lucrecia as well as several chamber music programs and masterclasses. Details of all concerts can be found at​

Review by David Richards
Toronto July 16, 2016

PARKER STRING QUARTET shows its Grammy Award winning form at Toronto Summer Music Festival