Mark Gresham | 04 SEP 2020
Thursday”s day-long fair weather was a good omen for the Peachtree String Quartet (violinists Christopher Pulgram and Sissi Yuqing Zhang, violist Yang-Yoon Kim and cellist Thomas Carpenter), which performed a 55-minute concert that evening at the Atlanta Botanical Garden — part of ABG’s “Cocktails in the Garden” summer event series. The four musicians, who are all members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, played the program from the Lanier Terrace that faces the Levy Parterre formal courtyard. They all wore masks and were generously socially distanced from the audience in the courtyard below.
The program was a mix of excerpts from mainline classical repertoire with more popular fare sandwiched in between. It opened with the first movement of Ludwig van Beet5hoven’s String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, followed by the “Meditation” from the French lyric opera, Thaïs, by Jules Massenet.
For this portion of the concert, I was seated on the stone rim of the fountain, which had been turned off, at the center of the courtyard. This was the point at which it became clear there were issues with the amplification. Pulgram’s introduction was close to inaudible, and the familiar Beethoven quartet was almost unrecognizable.
The “Meditation” – a tune that was among the canon of “popular classics everyone knows” as recently as 60 years ago, and seems to be making a return of sorts on the musical radar in recent years – fared better, though the overall sound distorted the impression of both pieces of music to a disturbing, making the strings sound shrill and metallic in their higher registers, notes which stood out of the texture set against other tone that receded into acoustic shadow. Individual parts popped into earshot then disappeared.
It would become fully evident before the end of the concert that the problem was not the musicians, but entirely the amplification. But the damage was done for those standing or sitting far from the performers, even if they did not realize the cause. For my part, as the concert progressed, I crept closer and closer to the performers. The extreme difference in the listener’s experience due to their distance from the musicians became abundantly clear.
Next up was the first movement of Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in E♭ major (“The Joke”), Op. 33, No.2, with Oblivion, by nuevo tango Astor Piazzolla, on its heels. During the Haydn I was making my way to a standing position halfway between the fountain and the patio rail, and to the right of center.
The musical attributes of Haydn’s music were a benefit under the unfortunate circumstances. Classically clear, articulate and spacious, it helped cut through the acoustical clutter to come across better than either of the two preceeding works. But again, I was also about half the distance from the stage than I had previously been, and there was still a tinny character and inexplicable imbalance to the sound – something that I had also noticed at another performance in the same location by the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet, on July 23, but did not mention in my account of the concert.
Franz Schubert’s Quartettsatz, D 703 was the next “serious” work on the program, and by its end I had made my way another vacated spot about four feet from the patio railing (see the lead photo at the top of this article). It was at this vantage point that Peachtree String Quartet sounded like the excellent, accomplished ensemble that it is – real string quartet sounds, without the bizarre degree of distortion and sonic metal, although some evident tinge of amplification was still audible. It was a night-and-day difference between where I was standing then and the vantage point of the fountain.
Finally came the much lighter concert closer: a clutch of Beatles tunes, delightfully arranged by composer Matthew Naughtin: “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yellow Submarine,” Yesterday” and “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Naughtin ‘s arrangements had many of the same textural advantages as Haydn’s music, earlier on the program, when it came to countering the amplification’s shortcomings, but by then I was actually close enough to the performers to hear them sound like the accomplished string quartet that they are.
The concept of cgroups like Peachtree String Quartet playing outdoors at the Atlanta Botanical Garden remains a good one, but it needs much better, sonically “true” amplification. Even more desirable – and we’re simply not quite there yet — would be suitable indoor venues around the metro area where chamber music can be performed to a small in-person audience with adequate social distancing for everyone. We look forward to the possibility of that latter option becoming a reality as the pandemic begins to somewhat subside, not only for PSQ but all of our city’s esteemed chamber ensembles. ■