Peachtree String Quartet in Sunday's concert at Garden Hills Recreation center. (credit Harry Owen)

Review: Peachtree String Quartet grows fanbase in concert of Mozart, Pärt and Beethoven

Mark Gresham | 14 JAN 2020

Following significant storms that passed through Atlanta the previous day and night, this past Sunday proved an pleasant, brilliantly sunny day for an enjoyable afternoon concert by the Peachtree String Quartet at their home venue, Garden Hills Recreation Center.

Although early promotions had listed Boccherini’s String Quartet No. 1 in G major at the head of their “Better Be Beethoven II” concert, violinists Christopher Pulgram and Sissi Yuqing Zhang, violist Yang-Yoon Kim and cellist Thomas Carpenter opened the program instead with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19, K. 465, nicknamed “Dissonance” for the adventurous harmonies in the 22-bar Adagio that opens the first movement.

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While it established a feeling of harmonic ambiguity, at its end the Adagio introduction snapped into a bright C major Allegro, as sunny as the weather outside. The Andante cantabile second movement was warm and lyrical, followed by an exuberant minuet with a more darkly shaded trio. The final Allegro movement seemed it would be a conventional rondo at first, but began to take unexpected harmonic turns, breaking apart its themes in the process, turning into something of a sonata-rondo that offered up a bold, conclusion loaded with Mozart’s acute sense of comic drama.

After intermission, PSQ performed the esoteric Fratres (“Brothers”) by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Exemplifying his tintinnabuli style of composition, the original version was written in 1977 without fixed instrumentation. Fratres allows for many different settings because it is not bound to a specific timbre, so this version was created for string quartet.

Arvo Pärt. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 2008. (source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

It requires two of the instruments to be tuned scordatura: the violist re-tunes the C string down a whole step to B-flat, while the first violin must the G string down farther, a major third, to E-flat. The second violin and cello are tuned normally, and they begin the work quietly, each with a open G and D, the cello playing a slow pizzicato rhythm while the second violin bows an extended drone on the two notes. Then first violin, viola and cello quietly take up the six-bar theme upon which the entire work is built, in harmonics over the drone.

The set of variations that ensues can be mesmerizing for the listener who is willing to give over to its atmosphere of sublime stillness where, as Pärt describes it, “the instant and eternity are struggling within us.”

For the final work of the afternoon, in fulfillment of the program’s stated theme, the group then turned to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10, Op. 74 (“Harp”).

Although the harmonies of the 24-bar Poco Adagio that begins it are not as ambiguous as that of the opening Mozart quartet, one can suggest some parallel features such as the quietness of the opening and its rather chromatic nature, but interrupted by a pair of sudden, startling chords. Like Mozart’s quartet, we got a confident Allegro in its wake, which includs the pizzicato arpeggios which inspired the quartet’s nickname (so tagged by the publisher, not Beethoven himself).

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In the uneasy serenity of the ensuing Adagio ma non troppo was followed by an energized scherzo (Presto) with a pair of trios – the second one hinting at fugal aspirations. The music quickly segued into an Allegretto finale, a theme and six variations, with a final swirling coda that surprisingly ended with short, quiet chords.

Peachtree String Quartet is now in its eighth season, and has had a loyal following since its beginning. The audience has seemed very consistent over the years, largely older patrons who are seasoned concertgoers. But this concert’s audience, which packed the Recreation Center, was noticeably different in that there was a much larger contingent of younger fans in the audience; overall a more diverse mix of age groups. (In part evident by the applause between movements, which is atypical of a PSQ audience.)

This is broadening of audience is a good sign for PSQ. They have worked hard to reach it without abandoning their programming excellence to do so. It may be that the rustic, informal atmosphere of their Garden Hills Recreation Center is one part of what attracts the younger crowd, but the venue has also been the Quartet’s home venue since they began in 2012. It may more likely be that PSQ’s reputation is finally getting around and blossoming, which comes with a group’s maturing. One can only hope that continues well into the future, as the group has grown become an undeniably important part of Atlanta’s classical chamber music scene. ■