The La Jolla Music Society has been bringing some of the world’s best string quartets into the Baker-Baum Concert Hall at The Conrad. With a little over 500 seats and acoustics that allow you to hear off-stage whispers, it’ a setting that could only be improved upon if the performing quartet visited your living room. But if The Conrad is a great place to hear one quartet, how about two at the same time? The Dover and Escher Quartets performed last weekend to prove, resoundingly, that is also a delight. Since they are two of the most highly praised string quartets in the world, the excellent sound and quality of playing was predictable, but good music for a string octet is rare compared to the cornucopia of quartets available. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven combined wrote more than 100 string quartets, but not one for string octet.
Of the ones that have been written, only two are popular, those by Schubert and Mendelssohn. It was almost a necessity for the performers to include at least one of those in their program, and they did — the Mendelssohn, sandwiched between Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet and the octet of Romanian composer Georges Enesco. All three works demonstrate precocious skill. Shostakovich and Enesco wrote theirs at 16, Mendelssohn at 18.
When Shostakovich began his octet, he was thinking of a suite for double string quartet in five movements, but also of his second symphony and first piano sonata. The latter two won out. Five movements for octet became two, prelude and scherzo. The brief prelude begins and ends with tender sadness, separated by a subdued touch of Shostakovich’s existential uneasiness. The scherzo, with its cynicism and edgy dissonance is a more forceful indication of the composer he was to become. The dual quartets played with a full rich sound, precision, and all-in responsiveness to the composer’s emotional intent.
The same pleasurable characteristics were evident in the Mendelssohn octet. The piece remains a paragon of string-octet writing. The opening and closing movements are fun even in a mediocre performance, and this was as far from that as you can get. The group began with a snappy tempo and a spirit of freewheeling, chance-taking joy. Mendelssohn provided a needed contrast in the romantically dreamy second movement before the near frantic closing movements, both previews of the magical skittering spirit of the Midsummer’s Night Dream Overture completed a year after the octet.
The Enesco octet, at roughly 40 minutes, was the longest work on the program and the only one after intermission. It’s less immediately attractive than the Mendelssohn and emotionally and structurally more complex. Although there’s nothing difficult about its melodies, harmonies or rhythms, most would need multiple hearings to appreciate them and how they form a whole Enesco thought of as a single sonata form. Although the finale seems to me to overextend it’s welcome, the beauty of the playing and the musician’s emotional commitment carried the day, and a well-earned ovation was a fitting end to the evening.
The La Jolla Music Society’s chamber concerts at The Conrad have been an outstanding success. I’m hoping that a loosening of international travel restrictions will eventually allow a resumption of the “Celebrity Orchestra Series,” perhaps in time to take advantage of the improvements in progress at the San Diego Symphony concert hall, or, with its fine sound system and much larger seating capacity, the Symphony’s outdoor Rady Shell.
Note: A documentary has captured the road travels of the Dover Quartet. A preview can be seen here.
The La Jolla Music Society’s season continues March 4 at The Conrad with a recital by pianist Beatrice Rana.
With renovations underway at the the San Diego Symphony’s Jacobs Music Center, Conductor Raphael Payare and musicians from the Symphony will be at The Conrad for a program which will include Concert Master Jeff Thayer’s performance of the Chevalier de Saint-George’s ninth violin concerto.
Visit the Society’s website for formation about these and other future concerts at The Conrad.
This review was of the Saturday, February 26, 2022 performance at The Baker-Baum Concert Hall.