Chautauqua Quartet ends one era, begins another

Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

The Chautauqua Quartet will play at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall as part of the Logan Chamber Music Series, but it will not be the quartet that Chautauquans know from years past.

“I would say that the big news of this year’s Chautauqua Quartet concert is that I am the sole surviving member from last year,” said violinist Vahn Armstrong.

Of the four members of the Chautauqua Quartet, all of whom also play in the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, only Armstrong, CSO associate concertmaster, has carried over from last year’s ensemble. Principal second violinist Diane Bruce sat out from the quartet last year because of an injury but returns to the group to play.

Armstrong said it will be the end of an era when Chaim Zemach leaves the quartet after this year. Zemach will continue to play as the CSO’s principal cellist for his 44th and final season.

Joining the quartet this year are assistant principal cellist Jolyon Pegis and violist Eva Stern. Pegis has “pinch-hit” for the quartet before, but this will be Stern’s first performance with the ensemble.

“I had never played either of these pieces before, but as far as playing with the people, that was very easy. That really took no adjustment,” Stern said. “I love playing chamber music, and I enjoy playing with all of them.”

Bruce said that there already seems to be good chemistry within the group.

“It’s not like you could just get any four players in the orchestra and guarantee that they would be a nice chamber music mix,” Bruce said. “It’s not that they would be bad, but I think we just have a feeling about our musicality, that it blends very nicely.”

Its members have come and gone throughout the years, but the Chautauqua Quartet has been a continuous entity since it began in 1929.

“It’s a tradition that goes back in Chautauqua really a long, long way, and I have to say it’s a pretty glorious tradition,” Armstrong said. “There are some amazing players who have been in the Chautauqua String Quartet, and so I’m proud to be a part of it.”

One of the unorthodox features of the group is that it only meets to play when the players unite for the summer in Chautauqua.

“Up to this year, we had played together for 15 years, but for a total of about six months,” Armstrong said of the previous version of the ensemble.

Another way the quartet differs from the average ensemble is that its schedule only allows one or two rehearsals, whereas a normal quartet would expect to practice four or five times together, Bruce said.

“It’s accelerated, and your brain just kind of focuses, and you can’t afford to lay back. You have to be very present,” Bruce said. “It seems to forge a special connection in the group.”

“It’s a special kind of musician that’s here at Chautauqua, no doubt about it,” Armstrong said.

The concert will feature two giants of chamber­ music repertory: Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart’s String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat major, K. 589, is unlike most of his chamber works for its slightly unusual orchestration.

The piece is the second in his group of Prussian Quartets, which he had written and dedicated to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, an amateur cellist.

“It’s hard to believe that this person was actually able to play the cello parts that Mozart wrote for him, because they require a very advanced player,” Armstrong said.

The cello, usually the bass line of the quartet, takes the melodic line in a higher register, leaving the second violin and viola to take the cello’s role in the piece.

“That changes the whole sound of the quartet,” Armstrong said. “They’re from very late in his life, so the music making, the ideas, are extremely sophisticated.”

Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, is nicknamed the “Harp” quartet because of the long pizzicato sections of arpeggios that pass through the entire group, creating the sound of a single harp.

“The slow movement is to die,” Armstrong said. “And the first movement is beautiful. It makes my heart sing.”

The piece has what Bruce described as a “demonic” scherzo section, which Armstrong related to the beginning of his Fifth Symphony as having the same rhythm and energy, but at a different interval. The piece ends with a series of variations.

“The imagination and creativity in coming up with these different ways of viewing what at the beginning is a very, very simple chord progression, almost nothing,” Armstrong said. “It’s breathtaking.”