From Russia with love

The Odeonquartet’s fall concerts brought back pieces the group has played before, and injected a premiere of a piece they played on their recent trip to Russia. Heather Bentley, the group’s violist posted about their Russian tour on TGN.

Each of the two concerts — the first one on Vashon Island and last Monday’s performance at the Good Shepherd Center’s Chapel Performance Space — ended with Alexander Galzunov’s Op. 39 String Quintet; it is a big, romantic wet kiss. Glazunov’s moments of genius came across as heartfelt. For my ears, the highlight of the concert came at the very beginning of the night’s program.

Pavel Karmanov has been described by Russian critics as “a romantic dressed in a minimalist gown.” His String QuaREtet was featured on the ensemble’s Russian tour. For that tour, Karmanov’s piece was paired with Philip Glass’ Fifth String Quartet (the Odeonquartet gave the Russian premiere.)  Glass and Karmanov are both minimalists. Glass‘ music tends to ripple and change in almost imperceptible ways. It takes the entire duration of a piece for the impact to be known. Karmanov does minimalism slightly differently. There is plenty of repetition and flowing, perpetual motion, but unlike Glass, Karmanov uses short melodies and layering of the four instrumental parts to create music which the person next to me described as Baroque in effect but reminded me of Steve Reich’s phasing technique.

Karmanov’s QuaREtet lead into Dimitri Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. This autobiographical work doesn’t lack champions. It is popular with ensembles and audiences. Rudolph Barshai transformed the quartet’s jagged, musical shapes into a chamber symphony. This quartet, like much of Shostakovich’s music is difficult to grapple with. Moments of bleakness succumb to unexpected sardonicism. Then there is the matter of whether the piece has a hidden agenda. Much of the composer’s music utilizes various themes and devices to convey coded messages to alert listeners. Shostakovich’s own theme (DSCH) shows up repeatedly in the piece, contributing to the belief that the Eighth Quartet, unlike others, is autobiographical.

The quartet likely resonated personally with at least two members of the Odeonquartet — violinists Gennady Filimonov and Artur Girsky. Both came up through the Soviet system. Through their leadership, phrases puckered with biting intensity, attacks snarled, and the interspersed Jewish musical references smiled darkly at the audience.  All in all a memorable performance of a great piece of music.

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