Vega Quartet (l-r): Emily Daggett Smith, Jessica Shuang Wu, Guang Wang, and Joseph Skerik. (courtesy of ECMSA)

Vega Quartet shines in stellar performance of Mozart, Smetana, and Mendelssohn

CONCERT REVIEW:
Vega Quartet
March 30, 2024
Emerson Hall, Schwartz Center for Performing Arts
Atlanta, GA – USA
Emily Daggett Smith and Jessica Shuang Wu, violins; Joseph Skerik, viola; Guang Wang, cello.
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: String Quartet K.458, “The Hunt”
Bedřich SMETANA: String Quartet No.1, “From My Life”
Felix MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet No. 3 (Op. 44, No.1)

Patrick Tabeek | 2 APR 2024

This past Saturday, the Vega Quartet delivered what I’d consider a virtually spotless performance of some of the most recognizable string quartet works by Mozart, Smetana, and Mendelssohn. The award-winning ensemble, comprised of violinists Emily Daggett Smith and Jessica Shuang Wu, violist Joseph Skerik, and cellist Guang Wang, played to a full Emerson Concert Hall, with the air full of excitement in anticipation of the quartet’s performance.

To open the night’s performance, the Vega Quartet performed Mozart’s String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 458 (“The Hunt”). Completed in 1784, this quartet was the fourth in a series dedicated to the composer Joseph Haydn, otherwise known as the “father of the string quartet.”

Mozart and Haydn thought of each other incredibly highly, and as contemporaries, their performances and working together on string quartets were an essential part of their relationship as composers. A result of this is that much of the quartet is Haydnesque. However, there are departures from this throughout the piece, as moments of more obvious chromaticism, embellishment, and generally richer melodic content separate the two.

The Vega Quartet captured these nuances stylistically, maintaining a brightness and crispness throughout the entire performance. However restricted the style, there were stark differences in character between movements, leaning into the somewhat out-there Mozartian harmonies to still create a rich texture.


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The next piece on the program was Bedřich Smetana’s String Quartet in E minor (“From My Life”), an unconventional and expansive autobiographical work rather than a dedication. Finished near the end of a life filled with hardship, it’s a reflective piece that spans the emotional landscape.

The first movement is a reflection of his youth, while also painting a picture of what is to come. The second is a polka, a call to Smetana’s pride (and nationalism) for Czechoslovakia. The third movement is a love letter and tribute to his first wife, whom he named his “first love.” Finally, the fourth reflects on aspects of his later life, such as his poor health, at some point contracting syphilis, which inevitably led to his loss of hearing.

The ensemble’s ability to navigate such an emotionally comprehensive work was musically inspiring, to say the least. It’s like the most perfectly read narration: every character, emotion, and scene was obvious. Very rarely do I walk away from a performance feeling like I just got done listening to a recording; however, this was one of those times.


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The night’s final piece was Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1, the final iteration in a trio of quartets written from 1837 to 1838, during a time of great success for the composer.

The piece opens with a tremendous amount of energy, joy, and light. The second movement, while given the title of minuet, seems removed, as its gentle and lilting. It’s almost haunting. The trio itself is haunting; there is a constant eighth-note pattern that makes the music feel restless, but it slowly melts its way back into the principal melody of the movement. The third movement is famous for its simple yet beautiful melody, which was performed brilliantly by Emily Daggett Smith — not a single foot put wrong.

The final movement exploded with joy and happiness yet again, and it sometimes felt that a whole orchestra should be accompanying the quartet. Their playing filled the hall to a point that I imagine hearing a timpani pound away, the brass blare — a full and rich sound that is rare and valuable. After a rather demanding performance, the quartet received one of the longest and most deserved standing ovations, as the body of work performed demanded the most care and respect, as well as profound musicality and spotless technique.

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About the author:
Patrick Tabeek is a freelance violist and violinist, private instructor of violin, viola and piano, and composer primarily based in the Atlanta metro area.

Read more by Patrick Tabeek.
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