Ancora String Quartet
Guest violinist Wes Luke (left) performs with Ancora String Quartet members Robin Ryan on violin, Benjamin Whitcomb on cello, and Marika Fischer Hoyt on viola.
Because of the leave of absence being taken by first violinist Leanne Kelso League, the Ancora String Quartet has undertaken a second season of experimentation. Last season, that involved bringing in different instrumentalists in trio-plus collaborations. This season, it involves two visiting first violinists.
Any change in personnel in a string quartet is likely to affect balances and playing style, and the group's fall program demonstrates that to a striking degree. Violinist Wes Luke of the Madison Symphony Orchestra takes over the first chair. It is clear that he brings to this venture a strong ensemble feeling, and infuses the group's playing with his own intensity and balancing nuance. The result is a program exciting and satisfying both for the musical contents and the performances.
Three works are offered in this program, "Sun and Shadow," which I watched the group perform at Capitol Lakes on Thursday. The program will be performed again at the First Unitarian Society on Sunday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m.
This program is dubbed as such for its exploration of pieces containing brightness and darkness. The image proves apt. The first work is Haydn's Quartet in D, Op. 20, No. 4. This is a remarkable demonstration of the composer's challenging the players with virtuosic demands, and the audience with clever and unexpected twists.
Second comes the one-movement Quartet Op. 89 by the American composer Amy Cheney Beach. It is based on three melodies of the Inuit of Alaska, and it follows an arch of moods, rising from quiet and thoughtful to strong agitation and then returning to quiet again. It's a wonderful demonstration of our need to give ear to this still-neglected and patronized composer.
Finally, there is music of extraordinary power coming unexpectedly from Felix Mendelssohn. Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, was his last finished work, written as a response to the death of his beloved sister Fanny and perhaps in unconscious anticipation of his own demise soon thereafter. Its restless and emotional qualities almost broke the bonds of the conventional four-movement layout, much less of our frequent tendency to dismiss so much of his music as facile and superficial. The Ancoristas delivered a realization of the work of truly impassioned strength -- thanks to the strong influence of Luke, I suspect.
In light of this program's success, it will be interesting to hear the influence of the other guest first violinist, Eleanor Bartsch, in the coming spring program. Clearly Ancora's experiment with guest leadership is bringing an extra charge of excitement to this season's music making.