On Saturday night we had the pleasure of attending a concert by the Fry Street String Quartet at the Southern Theater in downtown Columbus, which we had not yet visited in our three-plus years of living in Ohio.
The Southern Theater, built originally in 1896, has a distinguished history of presenting theater productions featuring world-renowned performers. After closing for many years, it was refurbished, and reopened in 1998, now with 995 seats, a good size for the presentation of chamber music. It retains its late nineteenth century decor and character.
When we entered the theater’s auditorium we were surprised and delighted to encounter something I’ve never heard — an accomplished all-female string quartet of high-schoolers playing Debussy’s string quartet (quite a difficult piece to negotiate, with its constant ebb and flow) as people entered and found their seats. Part of Fry Street Quartet‘s trip to Ohio was devoted to meeting with and teaching young students. It seemed like an excellent opportunity for these young players to get some exposure of a type they would be unlikely to get otherwise, and I’m sure they were glad to do it, despite the many people in the audience who continued to socialize while they played. I called them the warm-up band.
The audience was about eighty-five percent people of retirement age. Okay — I’ll admit I’m a gray-hair myself, but I’ve been going to these things since I was old enough to sit still and behave, surely no older than four, and I never thought of myself as unusual for being at concerts as a kid. Some of the remaining audience members appeared to be music students, in training to entertain the next generation of gray-hairs.
I did not see even one black person at the concert, but saw one at the reception later.
Both of these observations bother me because they are constants, characteristic of the state of classical music in the twenty-first century; I have opinions about the whys and wherefores, but must save them for another post.
The Fry Street Quartet’s program was a heavyweight: Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 3, actually the first quartet Beethoven ever wrote; Bartok’s first string quartet; and Schubert’s best-known quartet, titled Death and the Maiden. They topped it off with a cleverly staged encore, a virtuosic rendition of the country fiddler’s tune Orange Blossom Special, performed with style and pizzazz, a treat which some people too anxious to get out the door missed.
Being disinclined to write descriptive reviews of musical performances (heaven save us from the ignorance and idiocy of the typical newspaper critic, particularly the dolt who wrote the Columbus Dispatch review of this concert), I’ll say only that the whole program was played with enormous enthusiasm and that the ensemble is tight as a Swiss watch, with a sound that’s warm, balanced, and transparent.
What more dare I say? They got all the notes right, and in tune to boot, no mean feat! They’ve won a bunch of prestigious awards and have played in numerous foreign countries. Isaac Stern loved and promoted them shortly before he died, and sponsored their Carnegie Hall debut that received rave reviews. I’ve been listening to string quartets my whole life, and have known all of the works they played at this concert, including the Bartok rarity, since childhood. They sparkle.
And while I’m at it — they’re all really good-looking, too. It helps with the presentation. I’d rather see attractive musicians than ugly ones, wouldn’t you? ‘Nuff said.
I must single out first violinist Will Fedkenheuer; he’s a force of nature. In addition to being a standout player, he’s animated, and is an articulate and humorous spokesman who even speaks loud enough to be heard in an auditorium without a microphone. He presented a fascinating analysis of the thematic material from the Bartok quartet before they played it, supplemented by his comical narration of the Orange Blossom Special.
Until I was well into adulthood it was almost unheard of for classical musicians to address an audience. Today it’s done frequently, almost routinely. Unfortunately, sometimes the chat is mumbled and badly prepared, and seems to be an obligation forced upon the performer who would rather just play. Also unfortunate is that sometimes the words are offered as a form of apologia prior to the performance of a contemporary work most people in today’s ultraconservative audiences will otherwise automatically hate before they have even heard it.
It’s likely that audiences today are less familiar with the music, so need a little coaching. They seem to enjoy it, so far be it from me to think I’m above that sort of thing.
One On One
For us, by far the most interesting aspect of this concert experience came from the one-off connection I have had with the Fry Street Quartet. I’ve been following their career since about 2001.
Co-founding violinist Rebecca McFaul is the niece of Tom McFaul, my musical partner from our mad rock and roll days of so many years ago, and still a good friend. Tom produced the Fry Street Quartet’s first CD, and also composed a five-movement quartet for them to play, which has now had several performances, including a live rendition on the air at WFMT studios in Chicago. Tom has kept me apprised of all the Fry Street Quartet news as it’s happened, which I’ve followed with enthusiasm, because they really are quite good.
I’ve communicated in e-mail with Rebecca on occasion, and she is in my Facebook friends list, but until Saturday I had never met any of the group in person.
A significant problem the ensemble has had to overcome has been adjusting to two personnel changes. This is no trivial matter for a chamber music group.
Artistic musical ensembles aren’t merely players who get together to play some concerts. Well, sometimes they are, but even so-called supergroups often fall short of what an ensemble that has played together for many years is able to accomplish.
The factor that above all makes a group click, the source of the magic, is the chemistry between individual players. And because no two people are the same, no two musical groups are the same, even if they play the same instruments and perform the same music. This principle holds true whether the organization being considered is the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, Simon and Garfunkle, or a string quartet. Replace one person and you’ve got an entirely different entity, whatever name you attach to it.
Several years ago, Fry Street Quartet’s original first violinist decided to move on. This is the most difficult position to fill. That they found Will Fedkenheuer, a whole echelon better than the player he replaced, is little short of miraculous. But it does take a great deal of time and accompanying anguish concerning the probabilities of a group’s survival in the interim to find just the right person and fully integrate that one.
More recently, the quartet’s co-founding violist also left. The new violist, Bradley Ottesen, has now been with the group about fifteen months — still the new boy by the standards of classical music ensembles. Happily, he too is a superb player with a golden sound. It’s the nature of the viola’s timbre that many instruments sound tubby, resulting sometimes in a quality that can uglify a group’s sound. Not so in this case.
After the concert we rushed backstage to finally be able to meet everyone. They kindly invited us to a reception at the home of some people who live in Hilliard, on the upscale west bank of the Scioto river. There I was able to connect with individual players better, especially Rebecca. And I was also able to enjoy some quality face time with Bradley Ottesen, finding myself able to negotiate a bit of viola talk, primed by my family experience, in that that my father was himself a prominent and respected professional violist.
Our move to Ohio a few years ago has resulted in an enforced dearth of cultural experiences of the type we enjoyed constantly when we lived in Arizona. Saturday’s concert by the Fry Street Quartet was immensely enjoyable in itself, because it was so darn good, and served at the same time as a tonic to refresh our dominant gloom.