Ulysses Quartet – “The Power of Four”
Smith Opera House
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Thursday, May 26, 2022: Ulysses Quartet – “The Power of Four”
Smith Opera House, 7:30 pm
Christina Bouey, Rhiannon Banerdt, violin; Colin Brookes, viola; Grace Ho, cello
The award-winning Ulysses Quartet will guide us on an exploration of the string quartet’s capabilities and history, from Haydn to folk music of Denmark and Azerbaijan to a monumental contribution of Beethoven.
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3 Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Folk Songs Traditional, arr. Danish String Quartet
Rǝqs (Dance) Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (b. 1947)
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
All programs subject to change.
Individual concert tickets: $30 adult; $10 college student with ID; FREE through Grade 12.
Season pass (8 concerts): $200 adult
About the Ulysses Quartet
The Ulysses Quartet has been praised for their “textural versatility,” “grave beauty” and “the kind of chemistry many quartets long for, but rarely achieve” (The Strad), as well as their “avid enthusiasm…[with] chops to back up their passion” (San Diego Story), “delivered with a blend of exuberance and polished artistry” (The Buffalo News).
Founded in the summer of 2015, the group won the grand prize and gold medal in the senior string division of the 2016 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and first prize in the 2018 Schoenfeld International String Competition. In 2017, the quartet won The American Prize in Chamber Music Performance and took second prize at the Osaka International Chamber Music Competition. They were winners of the Vietnam International Music Competition in 2019. Ulysses garnered a career development grant in the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition.
At Juilliard, they are the Lisa Arnhold Fellows, serving as the School’s Graduate Resident String Quartet, an appointment that has been extended through May 2022. From 2016 to 2019, Ulysses was in residence at the Louis Moreau Institute in New Orleans, working with composer Morris Rosenzweig.
The quartet’s members, Christina Bouey and Rhiannon Banerdt on violin, Colin Brookes on viola and Grace Ho on cello, hail from Canada, the United States and Taiwan. They have performed in such prestigious halls as the Harbin Grand Theatre, Jordan Hall and the Taiwan National Recital Hall. Recent performance highlights have included their debut at Alice Tully Hall and appearances at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Naumburg Orchestral Concerts.
Ulysses recently completed work on their debut album, to be released later this year, and four more albums are forthcoming in the near future, including collaborations with flutist Ransom Wilson and guitarist Ben Verdery, as well as albums of quartet works. As a special project, the group will record the quartets of composer Joseph Summer at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, over the next several years.
The group’s name pays homage to Homer’s hero Odysseus and his 10-year voyage home. Additionally, the quartet’s members live in close proximity to the resting place of former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in Upper Manhattan. The Ulysses String Quartet believes intensely in the power of music to inspire, enlighten and bring people together. This is the guiding principle of the Ulysses Quartet Foundation, dedicated to the performance and promotion of classical music of the past and present day to benefit the broadest possible audience of music lovers and potential music lovers by expanding their understanding and appreciation of the musical arts. The quartet also offers interactive programs and workshops for all ages that serve to demystify the traditional repertoire while introducing audiences to diverse programming.
The members of Ulysses hold degrees from the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory and Yale University. The musicians perform on instruments and bows graciously on loan from the Juilliard School and the Maestro Foundation. Ulysses is grateful for the support of Shar Music and Connolly Music.
Smith Opera House
About the Artists
Canadian violinist Christina Bouey is hailed by The New York Times for playing “beautifully,” described by the New York Post reviewer as having “spun out…[a] shimmering tune,” such that “I thought I died and went to heaven,” and by Opera News, for playing “with exquisite, quivering beauty.” Her top awards include the Hugo Kortchak Award for outstanding achievement in chamber music, Heida Hermann International, Canadian National Music Festival, Queens Concerto Competition, and the Balsam Duo… Read more
Praised as “master of the strong lines,” violist Colin Brookes is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he made his solo debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the age of 17. A founding member of the award-winning Ulysses Quartet, Colin has taught in the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard School and the undergraduate programs of Yale University and SUNY Stony Brook. Colin performs regularly with The Knights, A Far Cry, and other critically acclaimed ensembles.… Read more
Taiwanese-American cellist Grace Ho is an active cello soloist and chamber musician in the United States and Asia. Ms. Ho has appeared as a soloist with orchestras including the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra, Evergreen Symphony Orchestra, Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra, Ho Chi Minh City Symphony Orchestra, Sun Taipei Philharmonic, Vienna Ensemble, Lewisville Lake Symphony Orchestra, Manhattan School of Music Philharmonic Orchestra, Kansas Wesleyan Orchestra, and University of North Texas Chamber Orchestra. Ms. Ho has achieved numerous… Read more
Violinist Rhiannon Banerdt made her solo debut at age 14 with the New England Symphonic Ensemble in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has since made solo and chamber music appearances at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, New York’s Weill Hall at Carnegie, and Boston’s Jordan Hall, among others, with performances hailed by Edith Eisler of Strings Magazine as “real music-making–concentrated and deeply felt”. Ms. Banerdt performs regularly throughout New England with a variety of ensembles and is a… Read more
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) certainly earned the moniker “Father of the String Quartet.” Beyond the sheer number of compositions in the genre that he composed (which total nearly seventy), Haydn standardized the four-movement form adopted by his successors and developed a more democratic style of writing, treating each instrument as an individual voice to be celebrated and heard. This structure and style are first exhibited in his six Opus 20 quartets, composed in 1772. Their nickname—the “Sun” quartets, derived from the image that graced the frontispiece of an early edition—is a fitting metaphor for the dawn of the newly matured genre.
The String Quartet in G minor, the third of this set, casts us immediately into the drama of the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) artistic movement. It is clear that this work is not merely entertainment; the traditional label (“divertimento”) applied to such pieces no longer applies. Moving rapidly between tones and textures, Haydn leaves us breathless: the gravity of the jagged minor theme is diffused by a lyrical and sunny melody, but sudden silences, unison declarations, harmonic meanderings, and rapid dynamic shifts punctuate the movement. A somewhat sinister and off-kilter minuet follows, perpetuating the tension. Though a dance in name and meter, the irregular, five-bar phrase structure belies the movement’s purported function. The Poco adagio offers the listener repose, as a graceful melody rises above a halo of accompaniment. Haydn highlights the range of voices in the quartet: for example, the opening violin solo gives way to a sinuously elegant cello solo. The alternation between these instruments and themes (with interjections and support offered by the middle voices) enacts a rich and vivid dialogue. The finale returns to the dark home key (G minor) and features similarly abrupt shifts and pauses, hearkening back to the opening Allegro con spirito. A mischievous melody pervades the movement and prevents it from becoming too serious however, and we conclude with humor, albeit of a darkly ironic kind.
Inspired by the rich tradition of Nordic folk music, the Danish String Quartet has produced two albums that evoke the history and culture of Scandinavia. Blending together the idioms of traditional music and string quartet writing, the songs conjure the sounds of ancient voices and instruments and recall images of the landscape from which the tunes emerged. As its name suggests, “Shore” was inspired by the latter: the inlets and islands that form Denmark, and the water that laps against its natural borders. The cello’s rolling, wave-like accompaniment sets the scene of this “folk-fantasy,” while a modally-inflected melody transports us into the past. “Shine You No More” opens with a single fiddle, but its foot-stomping rhythms prove infectious, and the other three voices rapidly join. The ebullience gives way to a more introspective section inspired by the music of John Dowland, an English composer who worked at the court of Christian IV of Denmark at the turn of the seventeenth century. The joviality slowly builds once more, with the cellist’s syncopated accompaniment encouraging the upper voices to return to their joyous, whirling dance music.
Rəqs, which means “dance” in Azerbaijani, offers another interpretation of the possibilities offered by the intersection of the string quartet and folk traditions. Composed in 2015 by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (b. 1947) for Fifty for the Future: the Kronos Learning Repertoire, the piece incorporates the rhythms and characteristics of the Azerbaijani dance tradition. Ali-Zadeh describes the history and importance of these practices culturally:
In Azerbaijan, many different dances have existed since time immemorial: for men and women, heroic and lyric, fast and slow. And the tradition of accompanying all important life events with all kinds of dances has been preserved to the present day: engagements and weddings, harvest and farewells, birthdays and even dates of death. There are also burial dances that accompany the farewell to the deceased person. In this respect, the dance tradition remains very strong and current in Azerbaijan today, especially in rural areas.
A pulsating, regular beat instantly provides rhythmic propulsion, while glissandi (slides) and pizzicati (plucking) evoke the work’s earthy, rustic origins. At times, Ali-Zadeh doubles the melody, with two players performing the tune in unison or octaves above the omnipresent rhythmic backing, creating a heterophonic-like texture reminiscent of a village band. The four voices occasionally fuse together entirely, creating an almost overwhelming amount of sound. Elsewhere, Ali-Zadeh crafts a more delicate texture, with a seductive solo voice accompanied by the strummed accompaniment. Throughout, the forward momentum inspires a physical reaction: one cannot help but dance along.
If Haydn’s Op. 20, no. 3 offered a glimpse of a genre growing into its maturity, the monumental String Quartet in A minor, op. 132 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) represents its full flowering. One of the works emerging from the composer’s “late” period, the quartet was shaped not only by the norms of the genre (and Beethoven’s creative approach to those boundaries) but also his personal circumstances. Opus 132 is thus paradoxical: it is both entirely original yet backwards-looking, and intensely personal but intended to be played, heard, and loved by others.
The Assai sostenuto begins in obscurity, as a four-note motif reaches upwards, crawling contrapuntally into the light. This short theme, filled with the chromatic yearning of semitones, permeates the movement, providing a constant reminder of this tenebrous opening. An outburst from the violin suddenly illuminates the way forward, and the principal theme—our first real melody, albeit a mercurial one—comes to the fore. The movement then unfolds, the music constantly searching for some resolution through the labyrinthine form.
The lilting second movement is Beethoven’s nod to the minuet, though the triple meter and otherwise swaying theme are complicated by Beethoven’s occasional rhythmic and motivic ministrations. The pastorale middle section, however, is blessedly straightforward; a drone underpins a lyrical melody, before the “oom-pah-pah” of a peasant dance takes over, all evoking an air of rustic celebration.
The expansive Molto adagio, entitled “Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode,” refers to Beethoven’s deliverance from the health crises that had plagued him and reminds us of the subjectivity of this work. In this movement, we hear not only the composer’s hymn of praise (colored by the use of the eponymous church mode, creating a sense of timelessness and piety) but also the joy he took in his recovery (indicated by the telling character marking, “feeling new strength,” and featuring buoyant leaps and joyous trills). We conclude with a final, most sincere intonation of Beethoven’s paean, the now-familiar melody bathed in celestial harmonies.
Unable to linger in that heavenly, devotional sphere, the fourth movement (Alla marcia, assai vivace) brings us crashing back to earth; the music marches forward, and so must we. This quotidian vision is interrupted by a rhapsodic first violin solo, which unspools over the tense tremolos of the other three voices. The dramatic recitative leads directly into the final movement, Allegro appassionato. The urgent theme and roiling textures drive the instruments into extreme registers and tempos before they finally triumph, reaching the jubilant A major coda. We have shared Beethoven’s journey—through the vicissitudes of life—from darkness to light.
©Anya Wilkening, 2022