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CLASSICAL MUSIC

Monday, February 21, 2005; Page C04

St. Petersburg String Quartet

The St. Petersburg String Quartet played two recent works by Shanghai-born composer Bright Sheng at the Freer Gallery Saturday: the String Quartet No. 4, "Silent Temple," and his Four Movements for Piano Trio, with Sheng at the keyboard. Though falling a bit short of its organizers' intent, the concert was aimed to musically match the gallery's exhibition "Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation." China was well represented, yet anything of substance sounding Middle Eastern -- not to mention musical equivalents of pottery or commerce -- was not apparent.

Allied with violinist Alla Aranovskaya and cellist Leonid Shukaev, Sheng gave a telling account of his tonally rooted Trio, a multi-hued outpouring of folk song and dance elements from four Chinese regions. The players were most moving in the gently mesmerizing finale, "Nostalgia."


The St. Petersburg String Quartet performed two recent works by Shanghai-born Bright Sheng on Saturday at the Freer Gallery. Sheng joined the group on piano. (Freer And Sackler Galleries)

While ably performed in detail, Sheng's quartet still sounded like a throwback to the ping-pong extremes of Western music's electronic-serialist era, as in the cello's endless wide vibratos and glissandos. The performers were equally if too consistently robust in Alexander Glazunov's Caucasus-inspired "Orientale"; Oliver Hunt's "The Barber of Baghdad," moored in imagined Iraqi musical idioms; and Prokofiev's lackluster Quartet No. 2.

But Aranovskaya's glittering gown, introduced after intermission (vs. the men's somber attire), and repetitious commentaries distracted from an otherwise interesting program.

-- Cecelia Porter

Cypress String Quartet

At the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday, the Cypress String Quartet presented two American works along with traditional repertoire, demonstrating a flair for subtle playing and a penchant for educating audiences.

Had Charles Tomlinson Griffes lived beyond his 35 years, we might recognize his name as quickly as we do Aaron Copland's or John Philip Sousa's. Shortly after being hailed as American music's new voice, the New York-born composer died in 1920. His "Two Sketches for String Quartet Based on Indian Themes" inspired the evening's most emotional playing from violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel.

In the East Coast premiere of Dan Coleman's String Quartet No. 2, the violinists produced pianolike timbres while cellist and violist bowed on the bridge to create tinny, buzzy sounds. Much of the four-movement work sounded cinematic. Indeed, the opening "Chorale Variations" could have depicted a scenic travel montage, and the concluding "Echoes" could have accompanied scenes from an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Oddly, the San Francisco-based quartet encountered trouble in the classical works that bookended the program. Marred by intonation problems and anemic tone, Haydn's String Quartet in G, Op. 33, No. 5, often sounded tentative, as though the group hadn't agreed upon its musical execution. Beethoven's String Quartet in C, Op. 59, No. 3, had more cohesion. The Cypress excelled in the inner movements' lyrical moments.

-- Grace Jean

John Feeley

Members of the classical guitar community share a love of musical intimacy, a delight in subtle details, pleasure in a specialized repertoire and the ability to pay close and rapt attention. On Saturday evening, the object of their attention was Irish guitarist John Feeley, who brought a nice collection of familiar pieces and the premiere of a concerto for guitar and strings to Westmoreland Congregational Church.

There were delicate songs by Dowland, some exuberant and colorful pieces by Albeniz, arrangements of a lovely set of Irish folk songs and of one of Bach's intricate cello suites on the program, all played with careful attention to nuances of tone and texture. If the readings seemed a little dry and occasionally out of focus (some of which may have been the fault of the arrangements), this did not seem to bother a devoted audience that rose to its collective feet at both intermission and concert's end.

The concerto, by Irish composer Eric Sweeney, who spoke briefly about the piece, is in three movements that, he explained, are based on traditional Irish tunes, although on first hearing its repetitive, minimalist idiom made that connection seem remote. The Sunrise String Quartet and Feeley handled their assignments with poise and confidence. But even with only a single stringed instrument on each line, the guitar seemed more a part of the ensemble than the leading voice, and the driving and unchanging metrical impulse seemed an ungraceful context for the lilt of Irish melody.

-- Joan Reinthaler


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