Mark Gresham | 8 FEB 2022
Like everyone else, Peachtree String Quartet has experienced its share of twists and turns trying to re-emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and get back to concertizing in front of live audiences.
Now in their 10th anniversary season, the Quartet found a way to perform “carport concerts” to limited, invitation-only audiences in May and October of last year. They re-opened Hodgson Hall at the University of Georgia (Athens) in October 2020 with a concert to a size-restricted audience and an outdoor performance at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens in September of that year. Each of these four was performed during a hopeful lull in the viral storm before the next pandemic wave came crashing down.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health website, the recent Omicron variant spike has been swiftly trending down since it peaked one month ago, around January 7 – 11. But the numbers remain high even as vaccinations have increased and venues have learned how to manage well enough to cautiously re-open this month for presenting to in-person audiences.
But not without impacts upon plans.
Peachtree String Quartet’s home venue, the Garden Hills Recreation Center, has been shut down during the course of the the pandemic and remains closed to use. That obliged the group’s “carport concerts” at the home of its artistic director, violinist Christopher Pulgram. But the audience at those was severely limited. For Sunday’s concert, the Quartet found itself welcomed to perform at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, which has been vigorously hosting chamber concerts when abated pandemic conditions made them viable.
The second impact on the group’s plans for Sunday’s concert was a matter of personnel. Violinist Sissi Yuqing Zhang was unable to take part. That left the group with the immediate prospect of performing music for string trio or adding another player to the mix &mdashl or perhaps both.
Two weeks before the concert, Pulgram took a gamble on Canadian pianist and Chopin Competition Prize Winner Charles Richard-Hamelin, a musician he did not know and had never met.
Richard-Hamelin was already scheduled the Friday before to play a solo recital at First Presbyterian Church, performing works by Mozart, Ravel, Franck, and Chopin in a gala dedication of the church’s piano.
He already knew Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 and was willing to perform. The piece would share the concert with two pieces for string trio.
Then another late twist to the plot: PSQ violist Yang-Yoon Kim became indisposed and was replaced by Yinzi Kong, violist of the Vega Quartet.
Despite all of the machinations, the resulting concert was superb.
Pulgram, Kong, and cellist Thomas Carpenter opened the concert with the first movement (“Allegro”) of Franz Schubert’s String Trio in B♭ Major, D471, drawing sweet tones from their instruments in the supportive acoustics of the First Presbyterian sanctuary.
They followed with a much more vigorous, modern piece: the String Trio by Moravian Jewish composer and pianist Gideon Klein. Klein composed the Trio in 1944 while held by the Nazis in the Terezín concentration camp and ghetto. The piece is significant for Pulgram, whose paternal grandparents and aunt were also imprisoned at Terezín.
Ten days after completing his String Trio in October 1944, Klein was deported to Auschwitz and then to the Fürstengrube slave labor camp, where he died under unclear circumstances. He had left his manuscripts with Irma Semtska in Theresienstadt, and at the war’s end, they were given to his sister Eliska.
Between then short and energetic outer movements is the heart of the Trio, a set of variations on The Knezdub Tower, a wistful Moravian folksong about a wild goose flying up into a high tower, symbolic of freedom.
Klein’s Trio proved to be a powerfully profound musical statement in the hands of Pulgram, Kong, and Carpenter.
After an intermission, Richard-Hamelin joined them for Brahms’ Piano Quintet No. 1. Here, Pulgram’s gamble paid off big time. There was a feeling for the listener of solid symbiosis between the four musicians in this masterwork of chamber repertoire, composed when Brahms was 28 years old.
They performed the first three marvelous movements with full-bodied eloquence. The tour de force was the concluding Gypsy Rondo, full of bravado in its dancing Hungarian rhythms and melodies within a sophisticated take on the rondo form.
Despite the multiple challenges of shifting circumstances leading up to the concert, Peachtree String Quartet presented a most excellent, successful, and moving program, even if there was no single piece for string quartet in it. ■