Chautauqua Quartet to share intimate voices


The Chautauqua Quartet. Photo courtesy of Caitlin M. Prarat.

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

The Chautauqua Quartet performs one concert a year. At 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, four members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will play a program of contrasting works from Mozart and Jean Sibelius.

The quartet was established in 1929 by the four principals of each string section of the CSO. Members in this year’s quartet include CSO’s Associate Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong, principal violist Thomas Dumm and principal cellist Chaim Zemach. Vahn Armstrong’s wife, CSO first violinist Amanda Armstrong, is in her third season with the quartet as a substitute for principal second violinist Diane Bruce.

Amanda Armstrong said it is her honor to play with the quartet.

“What struck me from the first is that there’s a richness and a musical wisdom and maturity from this quartet that I feel privileged to be a part of,” she said. “They know how it goes — let me put it that way — and they have a very natural and cultivated sense of how the musical phrases should be played.”

Because they play only one concert a year, Vahn Armstrong said there is no time to play anything but music they all feel strongly about.

Today’s concert will open with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 18 in A major, K. 464, one of the six quartets the composer dedicated to Haydn. Vahn Armstrong said this piece is the epitome of musical elegance.

“In a movie, if they want to establish that a party is fancy, they’ll have a string quartet playing,” he said. “If they want to establish that the party is truly elegant, the string quartet that will be playing is this Mozart quartet.”

Mozart’s Hadyn quartets were not commissioned and instead were composed as a labor of love. Mozart said as much in his letter to Hadyn, which is remarkable, Zemach said, because Mozart never mentioned the labors he spent in any other works

“I think that he wanted to put in this quartet everything that he knew: imagination, counterpoint, unusual harmonies,” he said. “He plumbs the depth of the soul. If everything was lost after (Mozart’s) death, by some accident, and only the third movement of this quartet remained intact, that would have put Mozart where he is now.”

Vahn Armstrong played the piece many times with The New World String Quartet, and said that the more he plays it, the deeper emotional resonance it has.

“When I think of this Mozart, I think of going on a journey — especially in the variation (third) movement — that takes you to a very rarefied place,” he said.

The Mozart quartet is contrasted by the program’s second piece, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56.

Amanda Armstrong said that while the Mozart piece is sublime and requires a light hand, the Sibelius is a complete contrast with its rich drama and Scandinavian fiddling.

“It’s really two different styles of playing, which is a challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun,” she said.

Zemach said the piece, like many of Sibelius’ works, reflects the unusual geography, unique history and soul of the Finnish people.

The Sibelius quartet is subtitled “Voces Intimae,” or “Intimate Voices,” and was completed in 1909. The composition is modern, but not inaccessible, Vahn Armstrong said.

“I think there are a lot of aspects that point away from (modernism) towards minimalism and the kind of music we hear from John Adams and Philip Glass,” he said.

“Intimate Voices” is a perfect example of a real-life scenario in music, Dumm said.

“There are moments in this quartet when Sibelius very cleverly depicts the voices of a small group of friends engaged in an animated discussion,” he said. “Each has a definite opinion, expressed with musical exclamations, pauses, interruptions and give and take.”

Chamber music is intimate, but this intimacy is doubly strong for the Chautauqua Quartet, since its members also are members of the Chautauqua community. The audience has a personal relationship with the musicians and will usually stop by after the concert to say hello and catch up, Zemach said.

“It’s almost like you’re playing for your family,” he said.

Zemach is celebrating his 44th year with the CSO and the quartet. He has seen other members join and leave, but the current quartet roster has been in place for more than a dozen years.

Friendship doesn’t always develop with time, but it has for this quartet, Dumm said.

“We’ve all heard of quartets where the members would hardly speak to one another,” he said. “In one, there was actually a lawsuit between members. I’m grateful to count each of my colleagues as true friends.”