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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Sextet of Quartets

Milwaukeeans treated to music from Philomusica, Fine Arts

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The Philomusica Quartet’s next concert is called “Jewish Expressions,” aptly so since that religious and cultural quality is shared by all three composers on the program. Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-47) String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1 is one of three in this set and, though composed last, Mendelssohn moved it up to the leadoff spot—no doubt reflecting his own very high regard for the work (“more fiery and grateful for the players,” as he described). The outer movements are brilliantly virtuoso, so much so that Mendelssohn replaced the usual scherzo (fast) movement with a throwback minuet.

The Quartet in C Minor is one of only a handful of works by Ukraine-born American composer Sholom Secunda (1894-1974), the composer of the old popular song “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” (1932). Though four years younger than Secunda, Viktor Ullmann died some 30 years sooner. Despite the fact that both his parents converted to Catholicism before he was born and his father was an army officer for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this could not save Ullmann from being sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. Of his 40-50 works, including piano sonatas, song cycles, operas and a piano concerto, only about a dozen are known to have survived. One of these is his String Quartet No. 3, Op. 46 (1943). It’s astonishing to think that he was able to work under such circumstances, but as he explained, “By no means do we sit and weep on the banks of waters of Babylon; our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.” Viktor Ullmann was gassed to death at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.

All three of the quartets above will be performed by the Philomusica Quartet at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music on April 11.

The Fine Arts Quartet also wraps up its season with three quartets by very divergent composers. Though Belgian composer César Franck (1822-1890) is most known for his towering D Minor Symphony and remarkable organ works, he penned a single quartet. Franck’s String Quartet in D Major (1889) came about at a time when he was absorbing the late works of Beethoven, a fact that most evinces itself in the quartet’s complex and challenging Poco lento – Allegro first movement.

Born in Rostov, Russia, Efrem Zimbalist (1890-1985) was first violinist in his father’s orchestra by the time he was 9. Indeed, he became one of the 20th century’s great concert violinists and, though his own compositions are few, he did manage one quartet: the String Quartet in E Minor.

American composer George Antheil’s (1900-59) works fall into two categories: pre-Hollywood and post-Hollywood. The former earned him a reputation as an avant-gardist of the first rank, the latter as a successful film scorer. Antheil described the new direction as one in which he sought “to disassociate (himself) from the passé modern schools of the last half-century…” Antheil’s String Quartet No. 3 (1948), perhaps thankfully for concertgoers, stems from the second half of his career.

This concert takes place at the UW-Milwaukee Fine Arts Center on April 11.