William Ford | 30 JAN 2024
Since late February in Lincoln, Nebraska, the weather has been, well, unkind. From foot-deep snow to below-zero temperatures to an unrelenting 14 days of cloudy skies, these few weeks have had the worst of what Mid-Western winter weather has to offer. But of course, respite will eventually come and it did on January 28 — the sun broke through and the temperature was no longer frost-bite inducing, so some 200 patrons streamed through the entrance of the Johnny Carson Theater at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to hear the Ames Piano Quartet, sponsored by the Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music.
The Ames Piano Quartet (violinist Borivoj Martinic-Jercic, violist Samantha Rodriguez, cellist George Work, and pianist Mei-Hsuan Huang) has been the ensemble-in-residence at Iowa State University and is one of the few regularly constituted piano quartets in the world.
The program began with Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E♭ major, K. 493 (1786). The three movements, marked “Allegro,” “Larghetto,” and “Allegretto,” are typical Mozartian creations featuring melodic beauty, harmonic creativity, sophistication, and contrapuntal skills, all contained within traditional structures. One of the advantages of hearing chamber music in a chamber-like setting is that each instrument can be heard with great clarity. Every theme and its subsequent development were never buried in poor acoustics. Mozart’s musical genius and creativity were always front-and-center. The Ames musicians were technically and musically excellent, and the “Larghetto” was particularly warm, rich, and expressive.
Next on the program was George Tsontakis’ Piano Quartet No. 4, commissioned by the Ames Quartet and premiered in 2019. In his pre-performance discussion of the piece, Mr. Work, the cellist said that this is about the seventh public performance of the Quartet. Tsontakis has been a composer-in-residence with the Aspen Music Festival and the Bard College Conservatory of Music. His music blends traditional and modern elements such as lush harmonies, counterpoint, and rhythmic complexity. According to Work, Tsontakis has a close relationship with the Ames Quartet, which accounts, in part, for their excellent recordings of his works.
The Piano Quartet No. 4 is characterized by a single ostinato (a motif or phrase that repeats in the same musical voice) in each movement. The composer uses soaring and sometimes searing longer lines over and under the motif, which will suddenly change character so what might have become a fully lyrical passage suddenly devolves into another, but different, line. In some ways, it frustrates the listener looking for a fully developed melodic or lyrical line, but it also creates strong forward motion in the piece. This was particularly noticeable in the second of the two-movement work. Tsontakis is not averse to sprinkling dissonances throughout his truncated lyrical passages, which provides additional color to music. The composer is particularly adept at writing for the piano, and in this Quartet, the piano anchors the piece. Ms. Huang seemed to relish her part and played with extraordinary strength and determination.
The final work on the program was Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1, which is quite a contrast to Tsontaki’s work because its lyricism and melodies are fully realized and developed in a traditional romantic style. The four-movement work, composed in 1861, begins with an “Allegro,” featuring a powerful opening theme, which Brahms then develops. The second movement, “Intermezzo,” is lighter and contrasts in mood and intensity with the first movement. The third movement, “Andante con moto,” contains the familiar Brahms dark, rich harmonic palette. The final movement, “Rondo all Zingarese,” based on Hungarian and Roma themes, is lively and spirited. None of this work is surprising; it is Brahms through and through, from the rich, thick, golden harmonies to the important folk influences. This piece delivers the essence of the composer. The Ames musicians played with polished intensity and wonderful ensemble; this was a masterwork played masterly by four masterful musicians.
In conclusion, this superb concert offered music from classical, romantic, and contemporary periods, highlighting marked contrasts yet celebrating the composers’ skill in developing themes as a common thread. ■
- Ames Piano Quartet: music.iastate.edu/apq