Celebrated for their performances of “uncompromising power, intensity and spiritual depth”, the internationally acclaimed Alexander String Quartet will return by popular demand to Lincoln Hall on Sunday, March 27, 2022 at 2:00 PM. They promise to warm your hearts and lift early-Spring spirits with passionate and soulful performances of master chamber works – truly world class music making right here in the Allegheny River Valley. Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts is grateful for the generous sponsorship of this concert by Dr. Arthur and Marybeth Steffee.
Celebrating its 40th Anniversary in 2021, the Alexander String Quartet has performed in the major music capitals of five continents, securing its standing among the world’s premier ensembles. Widely admired for its interpretations of Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich, the quartet’s recordings have won international critical acclaim.
Join us and be inspired by these consummate artists who critics have said “seemed not so much to be playing the music as breathing it.”
Post-COVID, open theatre style seating has returned to 100% capacity. There is no mask requirement. Please refrain from attending if you are ill or if you have been exposed to anyone with COVID.
Tickets are Adults $25, Members $20 and Students $5. Call to reserve: 724-659-3153 or buy online here.
Alexander String Quartet
Zakarias Grafilo and Frederik Lifsitz, violins
David Samuel, viola Sandy Wilson, cello
Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts welcomes back the Alexander String Quartet to perform a chamber music concert of some of the most beloved works of the string quartet literature on Sunday, March 27, 2019 at 2:00 PM in Lincoln Hall.
String Quartet in C major, Op. 54, No. 2 (1788) F.J. Haydn (1732-1809)
Finale: Adagio – Presto – Adagio
Strum (2012) Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)
Molto adagio from String Quartet No. 1 (1946) George Walker (1922-2018)
String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 “American” (1893) Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Allegro ma non troppo
Vivace ma non troppo
String Quartet in C major, Op. 54, No. 2
FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna
Haydn composed the six string quartets of his Opus 54 and Opus 55 during the summer and fall of 1788. Then 56 and nearing the end of his three-decade tenure as kapellmeister to the Esterhazy family, he was at the height of his powers as a composer, and these are very unusual string quartets. The second is a wildly original piece of music: it goes its own way, it continually defeats expectations, and it manages to be completely convincing at the same time. This music depends for much of its impact on the tension between the home key of C major and the tonic minor, C minor. The former offers music that is playful, unbuttoned, and sometime just plain fun, while the latter is anguished and dark. Part of the remarkable success of this quartet is that it so successfully binds together such radically different emotional worlds.
Haydn dedicated the Opus 54 quartets to Johann Tost, who was his principal second violinist in the Esterhazy orchestra between 1783 and 1788. In the latter year, Tost married a wealthy widow and set himself up as a successful merchant in Vienna. Haydn’s dedication of this set “To the Wholesaler Tost” is a wry comment on his friend’s change of fortunes (and perhaps it reflects a touch of envy on the composer’s behalf). On the evidence of these quartets, Tost must have been a remarkable violinist and artist, for the first violin part in the Quartet in C major is extraordinary. And this in turn raises a different issue. The textbook cliché is that Haydn liberated the string quartet and made all four voices equal participants in the musical discourse, but there is no question that the first violin is the star of this particular show: it has virtually all the musical interest, and the three other voices largely play the role of accompanists. This is in no way to denigrate this very unusual music, but it is to point out the unusual focus of Haydn’s writing here.
Haydn gives the first movement the rare marking Vivace, and this music is full of vitality, with the first violin swirling and dancing across its range; Haydn makes effective use of pauses as part of the progression of his opening idea. The first violin part is quite athletic in the opening of this movement, and it is barely reined in for the second subject, which Haydn marks dolce. As part of the brilliant first violin part, Haydn sends it up to an extended passage that ends on a high D, three octaves above middle C.
All of this good-natured energy vanishes at the Adagio. Haydn shifts to C minor, and the somber opening phrase becomes the ground bass for a passacaglia. As this theme (with some variation) repeats in the three lower voices, the first violin soars above them with a florid line, almost a series of exotic arabesques that decorate and comment on the grim sequence of the opening melody far below. After three repetitions of the ground, the music reaches a moment of repose, and then Haydn springs another surprise: he proceeds without pause into the minuet, which slips happily back into C major and dances along in high spirits reminiscent of the first movement. A unison rush up the scale with the four instruments all an octave apart leads to yet another surprise: the trio goes back into C minor and almost shrieks out its anguish. This is some of the most desolate, disturbing music Haydn ever wrote. It produces a sensation close to physical pain, and then – suddenly – it’s gone and we’re back to the amiable music of the movement’s opening.
The finale has a slow opening, which by itself is not unusual. But this Adagio goes on and on and on (it even has a repeat), with the first violin singing above steady accompaniment. Finally – finally! – the Presto arrives, and we seem to have reached the buoyant rondo that will bring this quartet to a shining close. Wrong again. The Presto barely has time to get rolling when Haydn brings it to a stop, and it vanishes for good: we are back to the Adagio, and on this music this quartet comes to its pianissimo close. Everything about this quartet makes it sound as if it should not work, as if these different parts could not possibly fit together in a convincing whole. But they do.
— Eric Bromberger
Strum is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006. It was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012 the piece underwent its final revisions with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition.
Originally conceived for the formation of a cello quintet, the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.
— Jessie Montgomery
Molto adagio from String Quartet No. 1
Born June 27, 1922, Washington, D.C.
August 23, 2018, Montclair, New Jersey
George Walker learned to play the piano as a boy and quickly developed into a virtuoso. At age 14 he entered the Oberlin Conservatory, and while there he served as the organist of the School of Theology. Walker continued his studies at the Curtis Institute, where he was a piano student of Rudolf Serkin, and in 1945 he performed Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, becoming the first African-American to appear as soloist with that orchestra. Walker taught at a number of American universities, including Rutgers, where he was on the faculty from 1969 until 1992. A composition student of Rosario Scalero and Nadia Boulanger, he composed orchestral, chamber, keyboard, and vocal music, and much of this has been recorded. In 1996 Walker became the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music when he received that award for his Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, premiered by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Walker composed his String Quartet No. 1 in 1946, shortly after the 24-year-old composer had graduated from Curtis. As Walker began the second movement of his quartet, he learned that his grandmother had died, and this Molto adagio was written in her memory. The movement may be thought of as a lament, but this is a loving rather than a grieving lament, and it is exceptionally beautiful music. From a subdued beginning, the music rises to an intense climax, then falls away to conclude quietly. After the quartet was complete, Walker arranged this movement for string orchestra, adding a part for double basses, and under the title Lyric for Strings it has become his most frequently performed work (it is, in fact, one of the most frequently performed works by any American composer). The present concert offers the opportunity to hear this music in Walker’s original version for string quartet.
— Eric Bromberger
String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 “American”
Born September 8, 1841, Muhlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague
Dvořák spent the years 1892-95 as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, and while he was burdened with a heavy teaching and administrative load, these years were very productive musically, seeing the composition of the “New World” Symphony, the “American” Quartet, and the Cello Concerto. This issue of a specifically “American” influence on these works has intrigued music lovers for years: how did life – and music – in America influence Dvořák? Nationalistic Americans were quick to claim that here at last was an authentic American classical music based on American materials, but Dvořák himself would have none of that. He denounced “that nonsense about my having made use of original American melodies. I have only composed in the spirit of such American national melodies.”
Exactly what Dvořák meant by composing “in the spirit” of American music is unclear, and the tantalizing question of influence remains, especially in a work like the “American” Quartet. In the summer of 1893 Dvořák took his family to Spillville, Iowa, for a vacation away from New York City. Spillville was a Czech community, and Dvořák spent a happy and productive summer there, surrounded by familiar language, customs, and food. He sketched the “American” Quartet in only three days (June 8-10, 1893) and had it complete in fifteen. Dvořák’s comment was concise: “Thank God. It went quickly. I am satisfied.”
Generations of listeners have been more than satisfied with this quartet. Quiet string tremolandi provide the foundation for the viola’s opening theme – its rising-and-falling shape and sharp syncopations will provide much of the substance of the first movement. A songful second subject in the violin has a rhythmic snap that some have felt to be American in origin, though such a snap is typical of the folk music of many lands. The development contains a brief fugal passage derived from the opening viola subject, but this passes quickly and introduces little complication into this movement’s continuous flow of melody.
Many regard the Lento as the finest movement in the quartet. It too seems a continuous flow of melody, as the violin’s soaring theme – marked molto espressivo – arches hauntingly over throbbing accompaniment. This melody passes from violin to cello and on to the other voices; the ending – where the cello has this theme and the other instruments alternate pizzicato and bowed notes – is especially effective.
The scherzo rips along cheerfully, its main theme sharing the rhythm of the quartet’s opening theme; about twenty measures into this movement, Dvořák gives the first violin a melody he heard a bird singing during one of his first walks around Spillville (bird-lovers should know that musicological and ornithological research has identified that bird as the scarlet tanager). The scherzo alternates this cheerful opening section with interludes that are in fact minor-key variants of that opening before Dvořák round things off with a da capo repeat. The most impressive thing about the rondo-finale is its rhythmic energy, in both the themes themselves and the accompanying voices. Some of the interludes recall the shape of themes from earlier movements before the blazing rush to the close – the coda of this movement is one of the most exhilarating Dvořák ever wrote.
The issue of American influence – whether spiritual, rhythmic, or in the songs of native birds – on the music Dvořák wrote in this country will probably never be settled. Listeners may decide for themselves the ways in which this quartet seems to embody what Dvořák called the “spirit” of American music.
— Eric Bromberger
The Alexander String Quartet is represented by
Hailed internationally for their consummate artistry, the Alexander String Quartet is one of the world premier string quartets.
“Never have I heard such keen awareness of this dimension of the score as I hear it in this performance. To say that the ensemble plays with a unanimity of attack, articulate phrasing, and penetrating tone is almost beside the point. Today, those aspects of execution are expected from the world’s topflight chamber music players. But what really sets these readings apart for me is the ways in which these musicians connect the dots, so to speak, and find just the right moments and just the right ways in which to reveal to us Mozart’s underlying grand plan.… This is truly phenomenal both in terms of the playing and the recording. … That said, the only word to describe the Alexander Quartet members and Joyce Yang’s playing of [The Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K 493] is exquisite.”
JERRY DUBINS, FANFARE MAGAZINE
(Apotheosis, vol. 2 — Mozart: The Piano Quartets, FCL2018)
“You want the short review? This is the best new music disc I have heard this year, and you should buy it. … Cox seems to have a thing for quartet writing, and if she stops at two it will be a tragedy. Color, exquisite rhythmic turns, evocative harmonies, and coalescence of melodic invention all conspire to make her music richly rewarding and horizon-expanding. The Alexander plays perfectly, and the Foghorn sound is great. An enthusiastic recommendation!”
STEPHEN RITTER, AUDIOPHILE AUDITION (5 Star Review! Dec. 2015)
(Patagón — Works by Cindy Cox, FCL2015)
“I felt then that I had found my perfect recording of these two favourite works. While it remains enjoyable, Joyce Yang and the Alexanders have completely trumped it. Quite how they have managed to find new things to say about such standard repertoire is quite beyond me, but there is something to marvel at around every corner.”
DAVID BARKER, MUSIC WEB INTERNATIONAL (A MusicWeb International Recording of the Year)
(Brahms & Schumann — The Piano Quintets, FCL2014)
“The talented Alexanders and brilliant Joyce Yang take on two towers of 19th century chamber music, the Brahms Piano Quintet in f Op 34 and the Schumann Piano Quintet in Eb op 44. Frankly any recording that elicits a positive comment about Brahms from me is worth noting. No stodgy, elegant (read dull and technical) readings here, these are gutsy, lively, exciting and maybe even a bit edgy performances. Excellent production, including concise yet informative notes.”
DON CLARK, PICTURES ON SILENCE, “BAKER’S DOZEN BEST OF 2014”
(Brahms & Schumann: The Piano Quintets, FCL2014)
“I’m not often as bowled over by core repertoire recordings as I was by this one. After handing off the album to a friend, the second opinion came back positive too: “The Alexanders really have a great feel for Brahms,” he said, and then he borrowed all the other ASQ albums I had.”
BRIAN REINHART, MUSIC WEB INTERNATIONAL (A MusicWeb International Recording of the Year)
(Brahms & Schumann — The Piano Quintets, FCL2014)
“This review is going to be short, because so highly-acclaimed is this disc that my opinion isn’t particularly important, if ever it was. Simply put, after delighting the critical establishment with some marvelous Piano Quintets, the Alexander String Quartet and friends turn in an unbelievable set of the Brahms Sextets and Quintets for Strings. Violist Toby Appel joins the Quartet throughout the program and easily reminds me how beautiful an instrument the viola can be. Nor is cellist David Requiro a mere guest artist. Folks, this is what chamber music is about! Deeply moving, highly involved playing is backed by exceptional sound quality that is warm and shows the genuine partnership between the players. … After 30 years, the Alexander String Quartet is demanding that we take a listen, just as after all this time, Brahms can still surprise us. These are deeply personal works in equally personal performances. Don’t miss them.”
BRIAN WIGMAN, CLASSICAL NET
(Brahms String Quintets and Sextets — 2 CDs, FCL2012)
“Dream-come-true performances from the excellent Alexander String Quartet. As they did during the Haydn Quartet that opened the concert, the players impressed with their sure ensemble, lyricism, accurate pitch, handsome sound and technical fluidity.”
THE BOSTON GLOBE
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THE ALEXANDER STRING QUARTET
Having celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 2021, the Alexander String Quartet has performed in the major music capitals of five continents, securing its standing among the world’s premier ensembles. Widely admired for its interpretations of Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich, the quartet’s recordings of the Beethoven cycle (twice), Bartók, and Shostakovich cycle have won international critical acclaim. The quartet has also established itself as an important advocate of new music through over 25 commissions from such composers as Jake Heggie, Cindy Cox, Augusta Read Thomas, Robert Greenberg, Martin Bresnick, Cesar Cano, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wayne Peterson. A new work by Tarik O’Regan, commissioned for the Alexander by the Boise Chamber Music Series, will have its premiere in 2016.
The Alexander String Quartet is a major artistic presence in its home base of San Francisco, serving since 1989 as Ensemble in Residence of San Francisco Performances and Directors of the Morrison Chamber Music Center in the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University.
The Alexander String Quartet’s annual calendar of concerts includes engagements at major halls throughout North America and Europe. The quartet has appeared at Lincoln Center, the 92nd Street Y, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City; Jordan Hall in Boston; the Library of Congress and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington; and chamber music societies and universities across the North American continent. Recent overseas tours have brought them to the U.K., the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, France, Greece, the Republic of Georgia, Argentina, Panamá, and the Philippines. They will return to Poland for their debut performances at the Beethoven Easter Festival in 2015.
Among the fine musicians with whom the Alexander String Quartet has collaborated are pianists Joyce Yang, Roger Woodward, Anne-Marie McDermott, Menachem Pressler, and Jeremy Menuhin; clarinetists Joan Enric Lluna, David Shifrin, Richard Stoltzman, and Eli Eban; soprano Elly Ameling; mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato; cellists Lynn Harrell, Sadao Harada, and David Requiro; and jazz greats Branford Marsalis, David Sanchez, and Andrew Speight. The quartet has worked with many composers including Aaron Copland, George Crumb, and Elliott Carter, and has long enjoyed a close relationship with composer-lecturer Robert Greenberg, performing numerous lecture-concerts with him annually.
The Alexander String Quartet added considerably to its distinguished and wide-ranging discography over the past decade, now recording exclusively for the FoghornClassics label. There were three major releases in the 2013-2014 season: The combined string quartet cycles of Bartók and Kodály, recorded on the renowned Ellen M. Egger matched quartet of instruments built by San Francisco luthier, Francis Kuttner (If ever an album had “Grammy nominee” written on its front cover, this is it.” –Audiophile Audition); the string quintets and sextets of Brahms with Toby Appel and David Requiro (“a uniquely detailed, transparent warmth” –Strings Magazine); and the Schumann and Brahms piano quintets with Joyce Yang (“passionate, soulful readings of two pinnacles of the chamber repertory” –The New York Times). Their recording of music of Gershwin and Kern was released in the summer of 2012, following the spring 2012 recording of the clarinet quintet of Brahms and a new quintet from César Cano, in collaboration with Joan Enric Lluna, as well as a disc in collaboration with the San Francisco Choral Artists. Next to be released will be an album of works by Cindy Cox.
The Alexander’s 2009 release of the complete Beethoven cycle was described by Music Web International as performances “uncompromising in power, intensity and spiritual depth,” while Strings Magazine described the set as “a landmark journey through the greatest of all quartet cycles.” The FoghornClassics label released a three-CD set (Homage) of the Mozart quartets dedicated to Haydn in 2004. Foghorn released the a six-CD album (Fragments) of the complete Shostakovich quartets in 2006 and 2007, and a recording of the complete quartets of Pulitzer prize-winning San Francisco composer, Wayne Peterson, was released in the spring of 2008. BMG Classics released the quartet’s first recording of Beethoven cycle on its Arte Nova label to tremendous critical acclaim in 1999.