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Fiddlers’ Feast

New York
Kaufman Music Center
04/04/2023 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet No. 13 in B‑Flat Major, Opus 130: Adagio ma non troppo–Allegro; Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo & Grosse Fuge
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade
Felix Mendelssohn: Quartet in E Minor, Opus 44, No. 2: 3. Andante
Karim Al‑Zand: Strange Machines (String Quartet No. 4)

Balourdet Quartet: Angela Bae, Justin DeFilippis (Violins), Benjamin Zannoni (Viola), Russell Houston (Cello)

Balourdet Quartet (© Kevin W.Condon)

If food be the love of music, binge on.
William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, revised version)

It’s time to say “Adieu” to string quartet names from a Greek giant, an ersatz-ancient Central European town and a wordy American philosopher: Kronos, Budapest and Emerson. The Balourdet Quartet bears its name from a Texas chef. And their music last night was a crazy buffet of near‑pathos, De‑Constructionism , and a German version of Italy–complete with a round black table with platters of pizza.

The latter was cute (but forgivable), as background for the quartet version of Hugo Wolf’s German-Italian Serenade. The lively seven‑minute usual orchestral work had the Balourdet playing, laughing and–during the slightest pause or a fractional caesura–grabbing a bite!

That would have been less heretical than a snacking on Schnitzel und Schnapps during the Grosse Fuge. But so electrifying was this young, ebullient foursome than anything could be allowed.

The Boston‑based Balourdet Quartet has quickly made an international name for themselves and for good reason. Many quartets pride themselves on their youth, but Balourdet actually act their age. From the cryptic start, strolling to their seats from all parts of the stage, to the animated talk/discussions between works, to–above all–their jolting playing, this group obviously would please the young–as did Kronos half‑a‑century ago–but might inspire antediluvian audiences in Kaufman Music Center to jump.

The program had a single work bringing us down to earth. Mendelssohn’s slow movement from a string quartet was played as if the composer was a full‑fledged Romantic. The violin solo by Justin DeFilippis was more than lyrical. It soared into a song (a song without words?), a contrast to all the strings transforming to the higher register. This, though, was no work of relaxation. The tension was hardly ominous or private, as in the Beethoven. It was an outward love affair played with love.

The Balourdet Quartet had commissioned a work from that highly intelligent and always eclectic Tunisian-Canadian-American Karim Al‑Zand. I had previously heard Mr. Al Zand’s Luctus Profugis, an impassioned work dedicated to refugees of all nations. Here he turned his learnéd ear and eye to a more jocular–even surrealistic–subject in the Balourdet-commissioned Strange Machines.

K. Al-Zand

The “machine” here was a three‑movement Deconstruction of the most familiar music. Everything from Mozart’s C Major Sonata to Bach’s Goldberg became grist for the Zand equivalent of Punk‑Steam. One could not (or was not supposed to) recognize the originals. Instead, the Balourdet reeled, staggered, bounded from motif to motif. If one could not follow the musical references, that was fine. This was demented music. But merrily demented. Sometimes Marx Brothers, sometimes Abbott and Costello, sometimes Three Stooges. But always played with synchronized musical inflection.

If this was a buffet of eclectic choices, the evening began and ended with the most impassioned, baffling and challenging work of all. Three movements from Beethoven’s monumental Opus 130 Quartet.

Why break it up from the opening at the top to two final movements at the end of the program? Well, nobody ever said the B‑Flat Quartet was a unified work. Except for an excess, almost an embarrassment of riches. And while it was–at least–a stretch to follow the Adagio ma non troppo-Allegro with the Italian Serenade, that was their choice.

At any rate, the three chosen movements showed not only an overwhelming excitement, but precision and clarity. That first movement introduced Balourdet Quartet to the New York audiences, and its jarring change of mood did indeed jar this listener.

Just as the Grosse Fuge complexity were given full brunt here. On a personal note, to hear the culmination of orchestral sounds in Sacre du printemps and the apogee of chamber music in Grosse Fuge within 72 hours here is an unforgettable experience.

Yet it was the penultimate movement with the innocent-sounding name “Cavatine” that made the concert so memorable. I doubt if the Balourdet Quartet would have made the composer cry (as he allegedly did). The Beethoven’s direction of beklemmt–overpowering or even anguished–was attempted and came close to winning from this most winning ensemble.

Harry Rolnick



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