Ensō String Quartet

Sunday, August 25, 2013, 4 pm

Maureen Nelson, violin
John Marcus, violin
Melissa Reardon, viola
Richard Belcher, cello

“Lyric Masters”

Celebrating the Anniversaries
of Benjamin Britten and Giuseppe Verdi


String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonant” (1785)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

Adagio — Allegro
Andante cantabile
Menuetto: Allegro
Allegro molto

String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 36 (1945)
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)

Allegro calmo senza rigore
Chacony: Sostenuto


String Quartet in E Minor (1873)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)

Scherzo Fuga. Allegro assai mosso

next week

Saturday, August 31, 4 pm

Annual Concert for the Friends of Maverick
Pedja Muzijevic,
Chopin, complete Preludes, Op. 28; Haydn, Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50

Saturday, August 31, 8:30 pm

Marc Black, vocals and guitar,
and Warren Bernhardt,

Sunday, September 1, 4 pm

Daedalus String Quartet with Rufus Müller, tenor
Music of Schubert and Smetana, and Britten's Winter Words for tenor and string quartet



Program Notes © 2013 by Miriam Villchur Berg*


With a 2010 Grammy nomination for “Best Chamber Music Performance,” the New York-based Ensō String Quartet has quickly become one of the country’s most exciting young ensembles. Shortly after the group’s inception at Yale University in 1999, Ensō had success at the Banff International String Quartet Competition and won the Concert Artists Guild International Competition, and has consistently received high praise for performances ever since. The quartet’s debut recording was described by Strad magazine as “an auspicious start to their recording career,” and was followed by the recent Grammy-nominated release of the quartets of Alberto Ginastera. MusicWeb International summed up this album as “playing of jaw-dropping prowess revealing masterpieces of the 20th-century quartet literature … seek out this group—they are clearly bound for greatness.” The disc was selected as one of MusicWeb’s Recordings of the Year for 2009.

In addition to the success of their recordings, Ensō String Quartet’s concerts have been acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. The Houston Chronicle praised the group for the “edge-of-the-seat vitality few groups maintain throughout a performance.” The group is equally at home in many styles, and is committed to the classics of the string quartet repertoire as well as being strong advocates for new music. In 2009, the quartet received a Chamber Music America Commissioning Grant with composer Kurt Stallmann. That same year, two recordings were released on the Albany label featuring the quartet in world premiere recordings of music by Karim Al-Zand and Anthony Brandt. Previous seasons have seen the quartet give many other premiere performances, including Joan Tower’s Piano Quintet with the composer at the piano.

The Ensō String Quartet’s members are sought after as teachers and chamber music mentors. As well as giving countless outreach performances in schools throughout the country, the quartet has held residencies with Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music as lecturers in string quartet, Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute, and currently with the Interlochen Adult Amateur Chamber Music Camp and Connecticut’s Music For Youth. The quartet has spent time developing programs suited to a range of ages, and they have worked with Young Audiences of Houston and New York and with the International Music Foundation in Chicago. They were also featured in the inaugural Young Artist Residency with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and in 2010 they received the prestigious Guarneri String Quartet award from Chamber Music America for outstanding outreach activity.

The Ensō String Quartet members hold degrees from Yale University, The Juilliard School, Curtis Institute of Music, New England Conservatory, Guildhall School of Music (UK) and the University of Canterbury (New Zealand). Together they held residencies at Northern Illinois University with the Vermeer Quartet and at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.

The ensemble’s name, Ensō, is derived from the Japanese Zen painting of the circle, which represents many things: perfection and imperfection, the moment of chaos that is creation, the emptiness of the void, the endless circle of life, and the fullness of the spirit.





The String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, “Dissonant,” K. 465, is the last one of the six that Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn. In the dedication, Mozart refers to the works as his sons, whom he is sending out into the world, entrusting them to the guidance of a celebrated man and a good friend. Mozart said that he had learned how to write string quartets from Haydn, so he must have been pleased that Haydn was present at his apartment in Vienna when this piece was premiered (with Wolfgang on viola). Mozart and Haydn held each other in high esteem, each defending and extolling the other’s musical abilities publicly at times during their lives. Haydn, who lived and composed into his seventies, was devastated when he learned that his young friend had died at the age of thirty-five.

The Quartet gets its nickname of “Dissonant” from the slow introduction (Adagio), with its series of tense and unresolved harmonic clashes. The tension is relieved when the Allegro proper starts, giving us a cheerful theme in C major, a key Mozart considered innocent in character. Taking a cue from, and even going beyond, the quartet style developed by Haydn, Mozart gives each of the four instruments an important role. The development fragments the main theme and puts it into the minor mode, before the recapitulation returns it to the sunny major key.

The slow second movement (Andante cantabile) explores the possibilities of lyrical song forms—including simultaneous duet singing and echoing lines between the violin and the cello—but always in the context of an ensemble working together rather than a soloist with subordinate accompaniment.

The Menuetto uses both imitative entries and strong unison passages. Mozart’s fertile imagination could always come up with a plethora of themes, but here he had set himself a challenge—to stick with one theme and use it in a variety of interesting ways. The central Trio starts dramatically in the minor, and even gives the cello a chance to sing the theme.

Mozart was not content with the predictable rondo for the finale (Allegro molto), so he wrote a passionate movement that combines sonata and rondo form. Themes recur, but are also developed in ways we would expect in a first movement. With staccatos, fast runs, and dramatic pauses, Mozart shows the unmistakable influence of his mentor, while at the same time displaying his own unique style.

Benjamin Britten is the featured composer for this year’s Maverick season, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. He is credited with revitalizing English opera, which had not seen any important composers since Henry Purcell (1659–1695). Britten’s opera Peter Grimes opened to great acclaim in 1945. Just months later, he wrote his String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 36, as a commission for the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. Later that year, Britten used a theme by Purcell in his Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra.

The opening Allegro is marked “calmo senza rigore,” calm and without rigor, and it does indeed start out that way, with unisons and octaves. But things change rapidly, and fast, forceful new thematic sections intervene in ways that are not at all relaxed. The wide leaps of the serene theme return several times, including at the end, to reassure us that calm will prevail.

Instead of a slow middle movement, Britten chooses to increase the intensity with a central Vivace (lively). Fast fragments of lines race forward, juxtaposed with pizzicato unisons and an occasional melodic violin line.

A chaconne, also known as a passacaglia, is a slow bass melody over which variations are written. Britten honors Purcell, the great composer of the British Baroque period, by using the archaic spelling that Purcell had used for his Chacony in G Minor for strings and basso continuo, a piece Britten had also arranged for orchestra. This movement is longer than the first two together. During its course, the theme is given to different voices, played in unison and in chordal harmony, and given a total of twenty-one different treatments. Individual instruments are given cadenzas between some of the variations. The first violin introduces the last three variations, and in so doing firmly establishes the key of C major.

Giuseppe Verdi was preparing his opera Aida for performance in Naples in 1873 when the stars of the show became ill. To pass the time until they recovered, he wrote a string quartet. He had it performed privately for friends, and only later decided to publish it. The String Quartet in E Minor is his only work in the form, and one of his very few purely instrumental pieces.

The Allegro opens with a dramatic theme, which is immediately developed. The second subject (in G major) provides a dreamy but brief respite before the urgency of the first theme returns. This pattern repeats up to the final flourish.

A lopsided waltz opens the slow movement (Andantino). The key is C major, but the many accidentals (sharps and flats) in the melody take it far from the usually cheery sound we expect of that key. It has been said of Verdi that his music is diatonic (i.e., in a regular key) in the structure, but chromatic in the details. As in the first movement, a short section with very different character—here fast, staccato, minor, and written in triplets—interrupts the action for short periods.

Most string quartets have four movements, with three in duple meter (e. g., 4/4) and one, the scherzo or minuet, in triple meter (e. g., 3/4 or 6/8). Verdi’s string quartet has two movements in triple meters, neither of which is called a scherzo. The third movement (Prestissimo) has the ABA structure and dancing lilt of a scherzo. An intense staccato A section frames the central trio, which offers a gently swaying tune accompanied by pizzicato (plucked) strings.

The last movement (Scherzo: Fuga) is the one actually labeled Scherzo, even though it uses a duple meter. Each instrument introduces the staccato theme in turn, building to a full texture. Contrapuntal passages contrast with sections where all four voices play together. The intensity builds up with an accelerando finish and an emphatic final cadence.

All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg. It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy,  publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at miriam@hvc.rr.com