By Dana Wen
A performance by the American String Project is like chamber music on steroids. The Project beefs up the concept of the string quartet, bringing together fifteen musicians from across the country to perform arrangements of great works from the string quartet repertoire. But the size of the ensemble is not the only thing that’s been amplified here. The effect of adding more musicians to each part (and including a double bass) results in performances that crackle with the heightened energy and vivid colors of a large ensemble, but retain the intimacy and close communion of a string quartet. This is exciting music-making that has a lot to offer, whether you’re new to string quartet repertoire or can hum the opening bars of each of the Beethoven quartets from memory.
The brainchild of bassist Barry Lieberman and Seattle Symphony concertmaster Maria Larionoff, the American String Project has blossomed over the years and become an annual Seattle musical tradition. Now in its ninth year, the Project is still going strong. In my mind, the Project’s recipe for success is based on three winning ingredients – the high caliber of the performers (a diverse group of some of the best string players in the nation), the spirited camaraderie of the musicians (which results in thrilling ensemble performances that are a joy to experience), and the wide appeal of the concerts (those unfamiliar with string quartets get a taste of this essential musical form, while seasoned concert-goers who have “seen it all” get to experience their favorite works in a whole new way).
On Saturday, the Project presented the second concert in their three-part series at Benaroya Hall. Unlike the first concert, which straddled the string quartet canon with works by Haydn and Shostakovich, yesterday’s performance focused on 19th century works, featuring Mendelssohn’s fourth string quartet (Op. 44 No. 2) and Beethoven’s eighth string quartet (Op. 59 No. 2). Lieberman introduced each of the works with a collection of excerpts, juxtaposing the sound of the original
quartet configuration with the 15-person group. A subset of the ensemble played an excerpt of the original work, immediately followed by the entire ensemble performing the same section of the piece. It was fascinating to hear how the work was transformed simply by adding more musicians on each part.
Both pieces on the program did a spectacular job of showcasing the abilities of the ensemble. In the chamber music tradition, the group is conductorless, but each work is led by a first violinist who serves as a concertmaster of sorts. With Larionoff in this principal role, the Mendelssohn was strident and bold. I immediately noticed the presence of the single double bass, which added extra support and color in the lower register. Notable performances by the members of the low string section, in particular cellist Stephen Balderston as section leader, provided a strong foundation for the performance, especially in pizzicato sections. The heightened presence of the low strings remained a strong force in the Beethoven as well. A true warhorse piece, this work is full of dramatic mood shifts and virtuosic passages in all four parts. It was thrilling to watch the members of each section breezing through difficult, lightning-fast runs in total unison. At other times, Lieberman’s arrangement called for all to remain silent but the four section leaders, allowing the “original” quartet to emerge. Besides adding drama and excitement to the performance, this powerful effect enabled the ensemble to place emphasis on certain sections in a way that would not be possible in the original string quartet configuration. Liberman’s arrangement also called for many solos, especially in the first violin part. As the lead first violinist, Jorja Fleezanis brought a sweet, singing tone to heart-wrenching solo passages in the second movement.
The American String Project wrapped up this year’s series with a final concert last night, featuring Verdi’s seldom-performed string quartet and Brahms second string quintet. If you missed these exciting performances this year, be sure to catch next season’s series. With the American String Project, Liberman and Larionoff have given Seattle audiences a new way to experience chamber music. These concerts are eye-opening, thrilling, educational, and a lot of fun as well.