When the opportunity to review the Vancouver-based ensemble the Koerner Quartet came up, it made me realize that I hadn’t really been exposed to classical music since I was a kid, decades ago, screeching away on my own violin. And thank God, my neighbours would say if they knew what I sounded like back then. I saw the Koerner Quartet’s season-launch performance, From Spillville To St. Petersburg, as a way of getting outside my comfort zone – to appreciate some classics – and so I said yes.
For those unfamiliar with string quartets, they are made up of two violins (first and second), viola, and cello, which are all members of the violin family. The string quartet is actually where the idiom “playing second fiddle” comes from, which can be likened to the stereotype of playing bass in a rock band. Since the instruments are so closely related, string quartets are renowned for their emotional range and ability to blend together.
The Koerner Quartet is quickly building an international following, and it’s not hard to see why. Each musician boasts an impressive résumé, and they have all been members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Playing at the Koerner Recital Hall, a small and intimate space, I was able to see what the ensemble-in-residence at the Vancouver Academy of Music was all about.
The first piece was Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz”, which began after a joke about the mere mention of Webern’s name being enough to scare some people away. It went completely over my head, so I made a mental note to myself to Google why that was funny later. “Langsamer Satz”, which is German for “slow movement,” lives up to its name. That’s not to say the piece was boring. With long, legato melodies full of voice-like vibrato, highlights for me were the high-notes that practically went to the edges of the fingerboard, and the plucky pizzicato.
Next up was Czech composer Antonín Dvorák’s “String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 No. 12 ‘The American'”. Personally, one of the challenges of trying to get into classical music is daunting titles like this. They’re almost sentences in and of themselves, making them really hard to remember. Dvorák composed “‘The American'” while he visited relatives in Spillville, Iowa, hence the first half of the program’s title. Dvorák was a total master of melody and composed this piece using the pentatonic scale almost exclusively, which is more commonly used in traditional Asian music. That he was able to create such amazing melodies out of this rather limited scale is a testament to his skill, and it was a testament to the Koerner Quartet’s skills that they were able to capture his melodies so well. The fourth movement, with its mechanical and driving rhythms, was my favourite part of the piece and is rumoured to have been inspired by Dvorák’s love of trains. The violinists’ double stops really did sound like a train whistle.
After a brief intermission, it was time for Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Piano Quintet Op. 57”. By adding a pianist to the mix, the quartet became a quintet – actually, a sextet if you count the girl who sat next to the pianist and turned the pages for them. The part I liked best about this piece was how the melody was almost like a conversational back-and-forth between the violinists, violist, and cellist, and then the piano came in and provided a nice counterpoint to the fluidity of the strings. It was also rare that every member of the quintet played simultaneously, which made the moments when they did even more climatic. At over half-an-hour, I felt like the piece ended at exactly the right time, and on a high-note, just as my attention began to wane.
I found the Koerner Quartet’s performance to have been a very subdued affair. And maybe that says something about my attention span in the era of 140 characters and six-second videos, but I’m not saying I was expecting them to be dancing and twirling like Lindsey Stirling either. I must admit, I am also a relative rookie to classical music, so maybe the more virtuosic nuances of their performances were completely lost on me. All I know is that when I closed my eyes, the fact that they are professional recording artists is not surprising at all. They certainly sounded like it. But then, as I sat there with my eyes closed, I wondered if I was losing out on that live aspect of the performance, and also realized people might think that I’m asleep. So I opened my eyes and watched the bows dance instead.
I came away from the Koerner Quartet’s performance with a greater appreciation for classical music, and a few more songs and composers to listen to later. I don’t know the next time I’ll go to another classical recital, because sometimes a little can go a long way, but I do know that I will definitely go again.