The Vega Quartet, Emory University’s esteemed quartet-in-residence, took the stage at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum on Sunday for a celebration of Jewish classical composers. The concert was the first in a new performance series titled “Something Special Sundays.”
Emory Chamber Music Society artistic director and Atlanta piano luminary William Ransom was on hand to serve as master of ceremonies. His commentary between pieces underscored the fact that these were not merely three distinct composers, but three distinct perspectives on the integration of Jewish musical stylings into the larger framework of classical composition. It was a meditation on the degree to which personal identity, cultural identity and artistic vision intersect.
The afternoon’s first performance — Five Pieces for String Quartet by Erwin Schulhoff — was easily the most overt in its cultural origins and also the most musically challenging. From the outset, the harmonic palette of traditional Jewish music was on full display. But it remains far removed from the jovial atmosphere of klezmer or the solemn grandeur of hazzanut. Instead, Schulhoff fills his auditory canvas with harsh, imposing textures that convey a sense of urgency and dread.
Schulhoff is at his most interesting when his pieces are examined for their interior structures rather than their larger melodic content. The viola in the Five Pieces often seems to play lines that complement the disparate musical ideas put forth by the violins and the cello while never unifying the parts into a larger whole. The result is a fiendishly multilayered work — the output of a raging but nevertheless captivating musical mad scientist. Opening the first concert of a new concert series with such a challenging and admittedly acquired taste is a bold move. But Schulhoff is a taste worth acquiring nonetheless.
The viola was handled by Joseph Skerik, a last-minute substitution. His technical fluidity throughout was commendable and he paired nicely with the rest of the quartet, a notable feat for anyone sitting in with an ensemble as deeply jelled as the Vega Quartet.
The afternoon’s second work, George Gershwin’s “Lullaby for Strings,” was arguably the least indebted to Jewish musical conventions. Instead the work is a musical comedy sketch that begins simply as a lullaby. Then it begins to invoke musical themes that embody the ambient sounds of the room — the delicate high tones that convey the creaking of a rocking crib and the delicate patter of feet as the parents try to sneak out of the room. It is a fun piece that speaks to Gershwin’s ability to paint sonic pictures. And, in a wholly improvised moment, a baby began crying in the front row much to the amusement of audience and quartet alike — one of the few times audience participation in classical music paid off.
The concert closed with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major, op. 44. As Ransom noted in his introductory remarks, Mendelssohn was born into Judaism but raised in the Lutheran Christian tradition. That inner turmoil between inherited and adopted cultural identities is apparent in Mendelssohn’s work, though not in the manner of a lost soul looking to merge disparate influences. Instead, Mendelssohn is comfortable in his cultural dichotomy and calls upon both his Jewish and Lutheran traditions to produce a sound that is immediately recognizable as his own.
The piece’s opening allegro is instantly recognizable to any listener familiar with Mendelssohn, and the Vega Quartet played it with particular enthusiasm. First violinist Emily Dagget Smith burned through a series of technically demanding passages with dazzling virtuosity.
Those technically demanding runs are characteristic of the composer. As Ransom pointed out in his opening remarks, Mendelssohn is the composer that makes musicians wish they were being paid by the note.
The event was a scant 80 minutes and transpired without intermission. As a testing of the waters for the Breman’s new Sunday concert series, it was a rousing success and one that, like recent shows by saxophonist Eddie Barbash and pianist Joe Alterman, bodes well for the Breman’s hall as a legitimate music venue. The museum will showcase the music of Gershwin on April 23 with a program called, “Who Could Ask for Anything More?”
From traditional klezmer and hazzanut stylings all the way through to modern innovators like John Zorn, Jewish music defies familiar harmonic and melodic conventions while still remaining instantly satisfying. It is a sound that is at once specific to one culture and universal in its appeal. The first installment of “Something Special Sundays” was a fine exploration of that universality.
Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.